Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870–1940 : Part 1
(1940 - 2017)
Arif Dirlik (1940 – December 1, 2017) was a US historian of Turkish origin who published extensively on historiography and political ideology in modern China, as well as issues in modernity, globalization, and post-colonial criticism. Born in Mersin, Turkey, Dirlik received a BSc in Electrical Engineering at Robert College, Istanbul in 1964 and a PhD in History at the University of Rochester in 1973. (From : Wikipedia.org.)
After graduating with a BA (Hons) in Ancient History from the University of Sydney in 1982, Dr Anthony Gorman took a break from study and traveled the world for a number of years, including two years in the Middle East. On returning to study in Australia he took up a more contemporary focus on the Middle East and graduated with a PhD on modern Egyptian historiography from Macquarie University, Australia. Dr Gorman then took up a Greek Postdoctoral Fellowship (IKY) in Athens, Greece, where he carried out research on the Greeks of modern Egypt and gained a Modern Greek language qualification. In 2000/01 he taught in the Department of Political Science at the American University in Cairo, and then took up the post of Lecturer in the Department of History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. From 2003 to 2005 he was an AHRB Research Fellow working on the ‘Cultures of Confinement’ project, an examination of... (From : Research.ed.ac.uk.)
(1936 - 2015)
Benedict Richard O'Gorman Anderson (August 26, 1936 – December 13, 2015) was a Chinese-born Irish political scientist and historian who lived and taught in the United States, best known for his 1983 book Imagined Communities, which explored the origins of nationalism. Anderson was the Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor Emeritus of International Studies, Government & Asian Studies at Cornell University; he was a polyglot with an interest in southeast Asia. His work on the "Cornell Paper", which debunked the official story of Indonesia's 30 September Movement and the subsequent anti-Communist purges of 1965–1966, led to his expulsion from that country. He was the brother of historian Perry Anderson. (From : Wikipedia.org.)
Research Interests: Radicalism and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Eastern Asia, The Guomindang Leftists in the 1920s, Wartime Collaboration in China during the Pacific War. (From : SOKA.edu.)
University of Edinburgh
Anarchism first appeared in Egypt among Italian political refugees and workers during the 1860s. Nurtured by a developing international network of labor, transport and communications across the Mediterranean, it expanded beyond Italian circles to attract members from across Egypt’s diverse ethnic and religious communities over the following decades. Though heterogeneous in character, different anarchist trends shared a discourse of radical social emancipation that in its propaganda and public actions proclaimed the universality of humankind and decried the evils of capitalism, state power and religious dogma.
In the years after 1900, anarcho-syndicalism played an energetic and central role in the development of the labor movement in Egypt, articulating the rights of workers in the struggle against capital and promoting an internationalist activism that resisted nationality, religion and race as the basis of organization as it countered imperialist, nationalist and state-based perspectives. Yet, while it rejected nationalism as an organizing principle, anarchism did at times make common cause with the nationalists against imperialism and arguably influenced the strategy and tactics of the nationalist movement.
The presence of a foreign working community in Egypt at the end of the 19th century has its roots in the policies pursued by Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt from 1805 until 1849. Embarking on a program to modernize the military, state administration and the economy, he had encouraged those with the necessary skills to migrate to Egypt to assist in the task. Under his successors, Sa‘id (1854–1863) and Isma‘il (1863–1879), an impressive series of infrastructure projects, all requiring skilled labor went ahead—the establishment of a railway network, the expansion of the canal system and an extensive urban building program. The flagship project, the construction of the Suez Canal, required large numbers Italian, Greek, Syrian and Dalmatian workers, in addition to Egyptian laborers before being completed in 1869. However, the availability and employment of such labor, both longterm migrants and seasonal workers, was not a phenomenon confined to Egypt but part of a broader trend throughout the Mediterranean and beyond to the New World that laid the foundations of an international network not only in labor but capital, goods and ideas.
That anarchism should first find a following among Italians in Egypt is not surprising given the presence of a significant Italian working community, the established tradition of Egypt as a place of refuge for political exiles and the historical role played by Italians in the development of the anarchist movement. In time this combination of labor and political radicalism proved potent. The Italian Workers Society (Società Operaio Italiana), formed in Alexandria in the early 1860s to protect the interest of its members, was the first in a series of Italian organizations that took on an increasingly political character.
By the middle of the next decade veterans from Garibaldi’s campaigns and other radicals established Thought and Action (Pensiero ed Azione), a political association based on Mazzinian principles. Soon after in 1876, a more radical splinter group was recognized as an official section of the First International in Alexandria. Additional sections were formed in Cairo, Port Said and Ismailia the following year and presented their first report at the Anti-Authoritarian International held at Verviers, Belgium that September.
Although strongly Italian in character, even at this early stage the movement was seeking to expand its activities beyond the boundaries of this ethnic community. The report presented at Verviers does not survive but the published proceedings show that the Alexandria section, with the support of the section in Cairo, and the Greek Federation, successfully sponsored a proposal, calling on the federal bureau to disseminate socialist propaganda in the East “in Italian, Illyrian, Greek, Turkish and Arabic”. The dissolution of the International soon after meant the motion came to nothing yet it was a clear statement of the intention to disseminate the ideas of the First International beyond European communities to the indigenous peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The anarchist movement was not only global in ambition but international in connections, scope and operation. The Egyptian participation at Verviers was the beginning of a continuing pattern of involvement with international congresses. At the London conference in July 1881 that unsuccessfully sought to reconstitute the International, the Egyptian sections, now in federation with Istanbul, were represented by Errico Malatesta, one of the preeminent anarchists of his time. Francesco Cini, who lived for many years in Egypt from the 1870s, attended the revolutionary socialist congress at Capolago in Italy in 1891 that strongly endorsed an anarchist program. Later, Cini would be chosen as the delegate for Egyptian anarchists at the London conference of August 1914 subsequently canceled due to the outbreak of the war. The pattern continued beyond the war with the participation of Alexandria anarchists at the Second Congress of the Italian Anarchist Union (Unione Anarchica Italiana), held in Italy in July 1920.
More informally, the international anarchist network was lubricated by the frequent movement of individual militants between different countries and across continents, from Asia to Europe, North Africa and the Americas. Egypt itself had the advantages of serving as a relatively safe political haven while not being far from Europe. In time, it developed into a significant anarchist center at the eastern end of the Mediterranean with close connections to Greece and Turkey, attested by the confederation between anarchists in Egypt and Istanbul during the 1880s. Regular connections were also maintained with groups in Tunis, Palestine and Lebanon, as individual activists crisscrossed the Mediterranean or followed the line of the North African coast, utilizing a network based on personal recommendation and shared ideological vision. These links operated far beyond the Mediterranean, extending not only with the main European centers but also across the Atlantic to the United States, particularly in the greater New York area, and to South America, in Brazil and Argentina.
While most of this movement was perforce of the rank-and-file fleeing repression, carrying confidential information, or seeking economic opportunity, leading anarchists also traveled for personal and political purposes. Egypt was a regular destination. Amilcare Cipriani, a key if mercurial figure of revolutionary politics during the 19th century, was perhaps one of the first, visiting twice in the 1860s. Other notable visitors included the celebrated geographer, Élisée Reclus (1884), Malatesta (1878, 1882–83), Luigi Galleani (1900–1901) and Pietro Gori, who passed through Egypt and Palestine on a lecture tour in early 1904. The presence of such charismatic activists and thinkers no doubt inspired the local anarchist community to greater efforts even as they spurred on security authorities to greater surveillance.
Important as these visits were, the written word arguably sustained a more regular sense of international community and global political mission among anarchists. An ‘imagined community’ created and consolidated not by ‘print capitalism’ but print internationalism, the scattered arms of the movement were kept connected and informed by an expanding anarchist press from the second half of the 19th century. Information flowed in both directions. Activists in Egypt regularly subscribed to anarchist newspapers published in Europe, North Africa, and the Americas, most often in Italian but also in French and Greek. Militants in Egypt contributed items on Egyptian affairs to anarchist newspapers abroad, particularly before the development of a local anarchist press. When newspapers such as La Tribuna Libera (“The Free Tribune”) and L’Operaio (“The Worker”) were established, they were available to an international readership that could follow labor and social affairs in Egypt.
In this way anarchists in Egypt (and elsewhere) were able to keep informed of the fortunes of the movement at home and abroad being provided with theoretical discussions, commentary, and serialized literature that promoted a shared sense of the international nature of the anarchist project. Many publications were dedicated to workers’ issues, offering insights, debates and discussion of common difficulties on matters of labor organization and strategy. Facilitated by an increasingly developed international transport system, particularly steamship services, the international anarchist press served as a vital channel for dissemination and diffusion of ideas a movement that saw itself as international in practice and conception.
Despite the reverses suffered in Europe at the end of the 1870s and early 1880s, the anarchist movement continued to grow internationally. In 1881 in Alexandria, anarchists had established a European Social Studies Circle (Circolo europeo di studii sociali) where they discussed social questions and were operating a clandestine press for the printing of posters. In the same year a conference was convened at Sidi Gabr and attended by about a hundred activists from different anarchist groups across Egypt.
At this very time Egypt was in the middle of a deep political crisis. Unable to service the debt incurred to fund expensive infrastructure projects and Ismail’s expensive lifestyle, Egypt had been forced to accept European control over its treasury in 1876. Three years later under European pressure, Ismaʿil had been deposed and succeeded by his son Tawfiq who endeavored to satisfy Egypt’s creditors. A contest for power developed between elements of the Turko-Circassian elite and Egyptian Nationalist officers led by Ahmad ‘Urabi who sought a constitutional government. By the beginning of 1882, ‘Urabi as War Minister was confronted by hostile British and French governments determined to defend European investments and their own resident nationals.
Characterized as anti-foreign, ‘Urabi did in fact receive support from some elements of the foreign community, including Italian workers in Alexandria and a number of anarchists. In June, following their bombardment of Alexandria British forces landed in the city and marched against Urabi, defeating him at a last stand at Tel al-Kabir in September. British occupation of the rest of the country quickly followed.
In the early years of the British occupation, the anarchist movement in Egypt was plagued by the fragmentation, disputation and factionalism that characterized it elsewhere. During the 1870s anarchists and socialists had been uneasy comrades under the umbrella of the International. The defection of Andrea Costa (an influential figure in Egypt) to legalitarian socialism in 1879 had caused a significant local schism. The movement suffered other internal divisions, particularly the enduring conflict between anti-organisationalists and anarchosyndicalists on the role of collective association in achieving anarchist aims. Until the end of the 19th century, the former trend appears to have been in the ascendancy but with the growth of the labor movement anarcho-syndicalists expanded their influence. Other disputes reflected the power of personalities. Ugo Parrini, a key figure and staunch anti-organisationalist, was notorious for his uncompromising style and was a persistent obstacle to greater cooperation among anarchists. Not until after his death in 1906 was a national program of action agreed which provided a solid basis for collaboration within the Egyptian movement.
Although Italians remained the dominant ethnic group among anarchists in Egypt right up until World War I, over time the movement would expand beyond its original Italian nucleus and take on a more multiethnic character. Greek anarchists, particularly, produced a distinguished record of syndicalist activity, leading militants, and an impressive press and pamphlet literature, but the participation of Jews, Germans, and a variety of Eastern European nationalities was also notable.
The extent of the participation of Arabophone Egyptians, while undoubted, is still difficult to quantify. While apparently absent from anarchist circles before 1900, the appearance of native Egyptians in important industrial actions, educational activities and anarchist meetings during the first decade of the new century suggests a growing involvement. That impression is confirmed by the concerns expressed by Egyptians and the British authorities about the potential threat of anarchism and the new radical ideas posed towards Egyptian society. The ethnic diversity of the anarchists in Egypt was matched by the wide range of occupational backgrounds. The majority of anarchists were skilled artisans such as carpenters, masons, cabinetmakers, shoemakers, stonecutters, tailors and painters, a phenomenon usually explained by the strong tradition of the guild, the better education and the relatively greater economic security of skilled tradesmen over factory workers. Some came from the petite bourgeoisie, particularly grocers, jewelers, tavern and bar owners, whose businesses offered a useful place for meetings. Yet other anarchists had a commercial background being involved in trade, owning or working for merchant houses—particularly true of Jews in Alexandria—or came from the professional class, chiefly doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, journalists and writers. By the end of the 19th century there was a shift away from the artisan core to the new working class, particularly cigarette workers, printers and the employes of the new large utilities, such as the tramway companies, providing new members. The great majority of anarchists attested in the record are men but the establishment of a separate women’s section in Cairo in the 1870s and the attention given to women’s issues suggests significant initial and ongoing female participation.
A diverse, multi-dimensional and sometimes contradictory assemblage of ideas, anarchism called for the moral, political, economic and social emancipation of all men and women through international solidarity and brotherhood. In promoting ‘the Idea’, it called for a struggle against the main causes of human exploitation, ignorance and injustice: capital (and its agent, the bourgeoisie), the state and dogmatic religious authority.
Anarchists never came to an absolute agreement on how this struggle might be conducted in Egypt but there was recognition of the particular difficulties the anarchist message faced there. Dr Enrico Insabato, an anarchist in Cairo, believed that European anarchists had first to disassociate themselves from those things that had overshadowed relations between East and West in order to effectively promote their message. He singled out three particular aspects: the tradition of religious division (which he accused priests of creating); Western attempts at political domination of the East, notably the Crusades and the more recent ‘clerical and diplomatic dynamite’ conducted by certain Western powers; and finally, the forces of international capital.
We must show [them, i.e. the Arabs] that not all Europeans are exploiters and besides that the enemies of the Orient are also ours ... For them irresponsible anonymous capital is European [but] the day they become aware that the capitalist does not constitute the lowest part of the European population, they will give just form to their hatred.
Once anarchists found a “common language” and established intellectual communication with an audience in the East, Insabato believed that “the Idea is not only possible here but that it is destined to be the most illuminating fulcrum for the future development of European-Oriental relations”.
Anarchist language in Egypt was strongest when it was attacking the evils of capitalism. While it also believed that dogmatic religious authority was one of the chief forces responsible for ignorance and injustice and called for emancipation not only from churches but “from synagogues, from temples and from mosques”, Islam as a faith does not seem to have been specifically targeted in anarchist literature. This may have been because its nonhierarchical structure put it in a favorable light compared to other religions. Insabato himself had singled out Catholicism and Brahmanism as anarchism’s religious adversaries since they taught “blind and passive obedience” and were thus a type of “intellectual alcoholism”. Islam, by contrast, was praised for its tolerance by Raoul Canivet at the opening of the Free Popular University.
The anarchist attitude to the Egyptian state was much more hostile even if it appears not to be detailed or systematic. There was general condemnation of the coercive aspects of the state, particularly the actions of the police, state security services and the culture of surveillance. The injustice of laws and the abuse of power were regularly criticized. Anarchists eschewed involvement in institutional politics in principle but they believed that the particular character of the Egyptian government, which impeded the formation of political parties and electoral contests, meant that the anarchist approach was better suited to Egyptian conditions than the pursuit of power through parliamentary contests advocated by legalitarian socialists.
Further research is required to present a more complete picture of how anarchists viewed Islam and the Egyptian state. Pragmatic considerations, such as the viability of anti-religious rhetoric or concerns of deportation may have played some role in determining the limits of activism. Whether for ideological or practical reasons, anarchists did not target religion or the state head on. The program of action agreed at the anarchist conference held in 1909, one of the most widely agreed manifestos of the Egyptian movement, observed the standard demands for the abolition of private property and the state, but it gave more attention to the goal of social transformation through the use of propaganda, education and workers’ associations, urging members
... to take part collectively and individually in all agitation of a moral, economic and social nature, actively participating in all struggles between capital and labor, and [...] to maintain in their public and private life that consistency between ideal and action that attracts popular sympathy towards anarchists.
The commitment to its internationalist mission and membership remained a central theme of anarchist discourse in Egypt. Public statements consistently emphasized the universal solidarity of all peoples. As one May Day poster announced,
On this day, across the sea and borders, conscious minorities of people, diverse in race, religion, nationality and customs but united in aspirations of civil progress, love, peace, well-being, liberty and hope greet the fateful date of 1 May.
Such sentiments were commonly expressed by anarchists internationally. In Egypt, the reality of a multi-ethnic working class gave this ideal of people of different races, religions and nationalities united in solidarity more than rhetorical force. Particularly after 1900, this was a distinctive feature of Egyptian anarchism: that it sought to engage with the ethnic, religious and linguistic pluralism experienced by many in their everyday and working life to promote an internationalist message. At public conferences and labor meetings audiences of different faiths and nationalities gathered to listen to the same message delivered in a number of languages. This is not to say that this internationalist call did not meet obstacles, sometimes within the movement itself though more often without. Nevertheless, the record suggests that anarchism was in principle committed to adapting to and engaging with the diversity of Egyptian society at large.
Anarchists in Egypt overwhelmingly favored propaganda of the word over “propaganda of the deed”. Although there were some cases of workplace-related violence, they eschewed political assassination and violence against members of the government or ruling class even if they applauded such acts carried out by their comrades in Europe and the United States. Nevertheless, local consular authorities were eager to promote a sense of the threat that anarchism posed to society at large.
The sensational announcement in October 1898 of the arrest of eighteen anarchists in Alexandria on charges of conspiracy to assassinate the German Emperor Wilhelm II during his visit to the Middle East was perhaps the most obvious example. Splashed across the local and international press to maximize its impact, the affair seems to have been cooked up by an agent provocateur, perhaps with some assistance from the Italian consulate, and thus reflects more the concerns of the authorities than any real threat of revolutionary violence by local activists. In the trial the following year, the accused were all acquitted of the main charge although they were found guilty of lesser charges of possession of prohibited literature. A series of rumors of conspiracies ascribed to anarchists in subsequent years should probably be put in the same category.
Rather than favor political violence, anarchists in Egypt preferred the spoken or printed word to disseminate their ideas, principally through communal study, public meetings, demonstrations and the press. Small groups had been organized at least since the early 1880s as a forum for holding discussions and attracting new members. This pattern continued into the new century but it took on a broader compass. The “European Circle” of 1881 gave way to the International Reading Room (Sala di lettura internazionale), a small library of anarchist books and newspapers in Cairo, which opened its doors to the public in June 1902, distributing a manifesto in Italian and Hebrew (or Yiddish?) on the occasion.
A series of similar ventures followed: a Social Studies Club was launched in Alexandria by young Jewish anarchists in 1903 and a Libertarian Studies Room (Sala di studi libertari) the following year in Cairo. Three years later a committee of Europeans, local Jews and Egyptians invited “all workers and friends of justice” to help establish an International Reading Room which would hold “scientific, philosophical, political and social works in every language.” Other associations moved beyond the reading room and stressed specific aspects of libertarian thought. Atheist Clubs (Cercles Athées) were set up both in Cairo and Alexandria while a section of Free Thinkers (Libres penseurs), with a membership of more than two hundred, was organized in Alexandria.
The local anarchist press aimed for a larger audience. After the false start of 1877, the appearance in Alexandria of the bilingual La Tribuna Libera/ Le Tribune Libre heralded a renewed period of activity in October 1901. Announcing itself as an “International organ for the emancipation of the Proletariat”, La Tribuna sought nothing less than the “complete emancipation of moral-political-economic and social slavery” of the workers of the world. In the course of the seven issues that appeared before the end of the year, it set an example for the radical press that followed, featuring articles on anarchist thought, local and international news of the movement, extracts from noted writers such as Leo Tolstoy, and a series on education by Dutch anarchist, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis.
Over the next decade, a series of newspapers and periodicals took up different aspects of the anarchist program. In Alexandria the weekly L’Operaio (1902–03) promoted anarcho-syndicalism, focusing on issues of workers’ associations, education and public health. In response, il Domani (“Tomorrow”) (1903) in Cairo adopted a stridently libertarian tone. Lux! (“Light!”) (1903) a fortnightly literary journal presented extended discussions of anarchist theory and practice, while the Alexandrian weekly, Risorgete! (“Rise Again!”) (1908– 1910), promoted a strong anti-clerical line. In 1908 the appearance of O Ergatis (“The Worker”), “an organ for the emancipation of women and the worker”, provided for a Greek language readership. Although contrasting in styles and specific orientation, particularly true of il Domani and L’Operaio, these publications were expressive of the ideological and linguistic diversity of the Egyptian movement. From 1909, a more coordinated anarchist press was forged from the consensus of the conference in Alexandria that year. In the succeeding years two newspapers, L’Idea (1909–1911) and L’Unione (1913–14), both co-edited by committees in Cairo and Alexandria, spoke to a broad audience with articles in Italian, French and Greek.
Despite its polyglot character, the anarchist press in Egypt does not appear to have included an Arabic language newspaper. Nevertheless, anarchism (usually referred to as fawdawiyya in Arabic) had regularly featured in the mainstream Arabic newspapers since the 1890s, usually in reporting the activities of the movement abroad. At the same time modernist journals such as al-Muqtataf and al-Hilal carried articles discussing the origins and development of anarchist thought and practice, sometimes in the context of the broader socialist movement. From 1897 al-Jami‘a al-Uthmaniyya engaged with socialist ideas while a review, al-Mustaqbal (“The Future”), which appeared in 1914 but was soon closed down by the authorities, featured the work of Salama Musa and Shibli Shumayyil, two Egyptian writers influenced by anarchist ideas.
As the international anarchist press served to promote the ideas and sustain the identity of the movement globally, so did its local counterpart on a smaller scale. The effectiveness of this press in promoting the ideas of the movement has to be qualified by two important considerations. The first is the literacy of the target audience. This was much higher among the foreign working class with, for example, sixtyseven percent of Italians and almost sixty percent of Greeks being able to read and write, than for native Egyptians, where only thirteen per cent of men and about one per cent for women, were literate. However, access to newspapers was not strictly limited to the literate since the common practice of reading newspapers out aloud in cafés allowed for the transmission of ideas to the unlettered.
Affordability was also a limiting factor. Although anarchist newspapers suffered from regular financial difficulties in production, they were competitively priced. La Tribuna Libera, L’Indipendente (“The Independent”) and L’Unione (The Union”) all sold for five millièmes
(half a piaster) a copy. This was the same price as the mainstream Arabic language papers at a time when the daily wage for highly skilled (usually European) labor was between twenty and forty piasters and for unskilled (most often Egyptian) workmen, about eight piasters. L’Operaio, unusually for an anarchist newspaper, carried advertising and sold for only one millième. Other anarchist publications, particularly numeri unici (one-off issues), were often free or by voluntary donation. At the other end of the scale Lux! which in any case was a more literary production was expensive at two piasters a copy. Circulation figures are difficult to establish but we know that the first issue of La Tribuna Libera was one thousand copies (six hundred of which were sent abroad).
While the press served to connect its readership through dissemination of news and analysis, the anniversaries of important political events offered an opportunity for a public commemoration of the radical past and celebration of its principles. On these occasions, posters, leaflets and fliers were printed, posted in the streets and distributed to the public by different anarchist groups, promoting the values of their cause and their aspirations for the future. Initially the most fêted of these days was 18 March, the anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871, publicly celebrated in Egypt by 1889. In time it would be challenged by May Day in marking the international solidarity of workers. For Italian anarchists the occasion of 20 September, the anniversary of the capture of Rome and the completion of Italian unification in 1870 provided a specific occasion to contemplate a sense of lost opportunity.
Other expressions of anarchist sentiment were more spontaneous. In January 1907 a series of public protests gathered in Alexandria and Cairo to oppose the rumored deportation of three Russian revolutionaries. Two years later anarchist hostility towards religious authority and political tyranny came together dramatically when the Spanish government arrested Francesco Ferrer i Guàrdia, a noted anarchist thinker, educator and founder of the Modern School movement in Spain, on charges of taking part in the anti-conscription uprising. News of the action spread quickly and prompted widespread protest internationally. In Alexandria a Pro-Ferrer committee was formed and hundreds of copies of a numero unico published on 30 September 1909 to publicize the case. On 4 October a series of speakers denounced the actions of the Spanish government at a meeting at the Free Popular University. Despite these and other protests Ferrer was executed in Barcelona some days later but he soon acquired martyr status. In Cairo later that month a number of anarchist organizations held a pro-Ferrer protest march. By the end of the year a plaque in Ferrer’s memory was set up in Alexandria and on 1 May the following year, the cry was heard: “Vive 1 May, Vive liberty, Vive Francesco Ferrer”.
The outrage expressed at the execution of Ferrer was not simply a protest against state tyranny but recognition of his status as an advocate for secular education, an important vehicle for social emancipation in anarchist thought. Indeed, it was in the cause of public education that anarchists in Egypt mounted their most ambitious project, the Free Popular University (Università Popolare Libera, henceforth UPL) in Alexandria in 1901. Planned in the early months of that year and galvanized by the leadership of Galleani, the UPL was inaugurated in May with the aim of providing free evening education to the popular classes. The event was covered at length in the local European and Arabic language press which endorsed enthusiastically its objectives and drew widespread support from across the full range of Alexandrian society.
Although inspired by a European model (the first UPLs had opened in Italy over the previous twelve months), the UPL in Egypt developed its own specific program and character. Ideologically it applied a more radical vision than the Italian UPLs, which had close ties to the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), in offering classes in the humanities and the latest advances in science to workers and providing individual lectures on progressive social issues, such as workers’ associations and the position of women in society. The UPL in Alexandria was also more internationalist by virtue of catering to a culturally and linguistically diverse community. Drawing on the services of voluntary teachers, classes were given in a number of languages, principally Italian and French, but also in Arabic and other languages. As one Alexandrian daily newspaper noted, “All the languages that sound in the mouths of the happy fellow drinkers of the waters of the Nile serve as a vehicle in lectures of different university teachers”.
Despite this propitious beginning, the radical nature of the UPL soon attracted hostility. Concerned at its political character the Italian consular authorities moved quickly to institute legal proceedings against a UPL lecturer, Dr Curti-Garzoni, after he had made certain remarks in class regarding the recent assassination of the Italian king, Umberto I. The action, while attracting some public criticism, effectively undermined the momentum behind the UPL and witnessed a quick shift in attitude in some quarters. Formerly supportive, al-Ahram now accused the university of being based on “depraved principles” and standing “revealed for its disgrace and emptiness”. Within a year reliably bourgeois elements had wrested control of the UPL from its anarchist founders and proceeded to transform it into a vocational college that, among other things, taught shorthand, accountancy and languages. Its brief life as a revolutionary project notwithstanding, the UPL marks an important moment for anarchism in Egypt and almost certainly served as an inspiration to Egyptian nationalists who would establish the Higher Schools Club (Nadi al-madaris al-‘ulya) in 1905 which similarly put educational means to political purpose. Anarcho-syndicalism and labor
Anarchism in Egypt would have its most significant impact on the development of the labor movement. With the emergence of a new working class of critical mass at the end of the 19th century, anarchosyndicalism, in contrast to the anti-organisationalists, held that formal collective organization was the necessary instrument of social revolution and began to assert itself as a force. Employing a discourse that stressed the virtues of solidarity, workers’ rights, and justice, it played a central role in organization and formulation of the strategy and tactics of working class militancy in resisting the predations of capital.
Organized labor was far from new in Egypt. Guilds had been an integral part of the traditional Ottoman order, serving as guardians of the trade, regulating entry into the profession, maintaining standards of workmanship, controlling competition and providing a framework for mutual aid. The modernization program of Muhammad Ali in the first half of the 19th century and the progressive incorporation of Egypt into the international capitalist system in the second had begun to undermine established social and economic structures. Greater foreign trade, the demand and import of large amounts of goods and the inflow of capital invested in land companies, agriculture and local industry in Egypt significantly changed the economic and social role of guilds and the character of the working class.
As has already been indicated, an important part of this process was the establishment of a local foreign workforce alongside native Egyptian labor. Historians of the Egyptian labor movement, primarily concerned with its contribution to the national movement, have tended to stress the differences between the European and foreign worker above any common basis for action. While acknowledging in varying measure the positive role played by foreign workers in inspiring the organization of Egyptian workers, they have tended to emphasize the factors that militated against such cooperation: the ethnic character of some occupations, the differential rates of pay, and the legal advantages foreign workers enjoyed under the Capitulations.
This characterization of the relationship between these two groups requires some revision. While the factors noted clearly played some part in determining the pattern and configuration of labor activism, the record shows a clear and sustained evidence of cooperation and collaboration between the elements within these two groups that took off at the very beginning of the new century. As Lockman has rightly pointed out, the native Egyptian working class was not homogeneous, did it function as a single actor nor did it possess a single subjectivity. The same is true of the local foreign working class. Our understanding of the relations between these two groups should therefore not be reduced to a European style of labor organization in competition with a new emerging Egyptian labor model. It is argued here that a model of collaboration between European and Egyptian workers grounded in an internationalist ethic and universal workers’ rights was locally constituted in Egypt during the critical years from the beginning of the 20th century until 1914.
The international or mixed union (in Arabic, niqaba mukhtalifa) was the clearest formal expression of common cause between foreign and Egyptian workers and the most obvious vehicle for anarcho-syndicalist militancy. Accepting workers of all nationalities, these unions were established in important trades, such as cigarette workers, tailors, tobacco workers and shoemakers, but they were also set up on a less specific basis, such as the International Union of Workers and Employes (IUWE) formed in Cairo. Meetings and demonstrations reflected the international character of the membership. At a meeting during the tailors’ strike in 1901, workers’ demands were read out in a number of languages while at the inaugural meeting of the IUWE in 1909 speakers addressed an audience of more than two thousand people on the importance of the collective action and international solidarity in Arabic, French, Greek, Italian and German. Union leadership was similarly international. A committee of fourteen made up of five Greeks, five Egyptians, two Syrians, one Italian and an Armenian, for example, ran the shoemakers union.
In common with existing workers’ associations, these international unions provided various welfare services to members but they also represented a break from earlier patterns of labor organization. They more aggressively championed workers’ interests in the battle against employers and they also appealed to higher values of international solidarity and universal brotherhood adopting names redolent with ideological aspirations such as Concord (tailors), Progress (tobacco workers) and Reform (shoemakers). They were complemented in this by the resistance leagues (leghe di resistenza), first established in Alexandria among printers, tailors and cigarette rollers at the beginning of the decade by the tireless Pietro Vasai, which probably served as a smaller, disciplined core of anarcho-syndicalist practice. In Cairo in 1910 the common purpose and ideological affiliation between these organizations was made particularly clear, when the IUWE, the Ligue Typographique, the Association of Cigarettiers and the International
Federation of Resistance, rented a common premises.
The cigarette rollers union embodied the new militancy of the international unions. Originally set up as a Greek body in Cairo during the 1890s, it accepted membership from rollers of all nationalities just prior to launching the successful strike of 1899–1900 that is regarded as a milestone in industrial militancy in Egypt. The successful out come of this action put the cigarette workers at the vanguard of the new labor movement. However, the peaceful gains of this strike contrasted with the bruising confrontations in December of the following year when police used canes and fire hoses to attack workers. More desperate still was the strike of 1903. At the height of the confrontation, anarchists Ugo Parrini and Nicolas Doumas led the call for a general strike, urging workers to fight violence with violence.
Ultimately the strike collapsed as employers brought in other Egyptian and Syrian workers as strike breakers and successfully split the united front by branding the industrial dispute an ethnic conflict. Cigarette workers would take some years to recover from the blow. When they did reorganize in 1908, the two cigarette unions, the Matossian Union and the Ligue Internationale des Ouvriers Cigarettiers et Papetiers du Caire, further expanded their membership by accepting all cigarette workers, not only rollers.
By the end of the first decade of the century, the anarcho-syndicalist international union had emerged as a significant industrial and indeed moral force. As one Cairene newspaper confidently announced,
Happily in Cairo some years ago, a movement began to be observed of the fraternization of the working classes, and after not many years the city of the Caliphs will be one of the first socialist centers on account of its international character.
The optimism may have been overstated but the sentiment expressed captured the confidence of a broad movement within the working classes based on universalist principles in which anarchists and syndicalists had played a leading role.
Despite the successes of the international unions, the call for workers of all nationalities to unite and defend their interests did not go unchallenged. The closest ideological rivals were the socialists with whom anarchists shared an anti-capitalist program but disagreed on the manner and the rationale it should be pursued.
One source of competition for the loyalty of foreign workers was the local national associations found in the foreign communities that provided welfare services and a social life for members within a communitarian or homeland orientation. These were particularly significant in the Greek community where the power of the bourgeois oligarchy in funding and controlling community institutions maintained a patron-client relationship with workers.
However, the most significant challenge to the internationalist aspirations of syndicalism in respect of Egyptian workers was the emerging nationalist movement. Initially, workers had not figured in the thinking of young nationalists like Muhammad Farid, who in the mid1890s had regarded signs of militant labor as part of a “European disease” and alien to the Egyptian context. Over the next decade and a half as the phenomenon of strikes increased and the power of the labor movement became clear, the nationalist position shifted. In 1909 the Watani Party openly backed the formation of the Manual Trades Workers Union (MTWU), a diverse body of Egyptian urban workers, recognizing both the need to constitute a broader national community and the political potential of the worker in the struggle against the British occupation.
Well before this time, anarcho-syndicalists had been aware of the need to engage with the native Egyptian worker. This was most easily done in the framework of the international union; however the structure of the working class, where many occupations were for all practical purposes practiced only by Egyptians, meant that their formation was often not feasible. Nevertheless, some anarchists and particularly the editors of L’Operaio even as they recognized certain difficulties highlighted the importance of promoting the necessity of labor organization and militancy to the native proletariat. When the cab drivers in Alexandria went on strike in April 1903, the paper heralded this as the beginning of a genuine Egyptian militancy. The editors of L’Unione similarly stressed the shared interests of European and Egyptian workers, emphasizing they had to unite to successfully defend their interests because “capital is our common enemy”. More than that they pointed to the universal condition of workers:
Labor has no frontiers or language. Therefore we make no issue of nationality, of religion, of race. All feel the same needs, all suffer the same grief; all have one single aspiration: their own well-being, which cannot be other than the result of the common well-being.
Egyptian nationalists, however, articulated quite a different political vision and in the years after the formation of the MTWU contended with anarcho-syndicalists for the support of the working class in Egypt, employing both discursive and organizational tactics, and drawing on nativist and ethnocentric appeals to splinter the internationalist labor movement. In this, they followed the employers during the cigarette strike of 1903.
One arena in which these conflicts were played out was the International Printers League of Cairo. Established at the beginning of the century by Italian anarcho-syndicalists, the membership of the union was predominantly Italian but included Greek and Egyptian members. In 1909 a splinter group of Italian workers sought to break away from the union to form an Italian Mutual Assistance Society. The anarchist l’Idea came out strongly against the move branding it a “regression” that rejected “brotherhood and international solidarity”. For a time, a split appears to have been averted but in February 1911 some parting of the ways between Egyptian and European printers seems to have occurred. In the years that followed, anarcho-syndicalist forces were weakened by the government campaign of deportation waged against activists, Pietro Vasai being among them. Yet, by 1915 now under the leadership of Italian anarchist Giuseppe Pizzuto, Europeans and Egyptians were again accepted as members of the union on equal terms.
Britain declared Egypt a protectorate following the outbreak of the World War I and for the next four years oversaw a policy of clamping down on all political activities, interning nationalists, surveilling or deporting foreign anarchists and closing down newspapers. With the end of hostilities in 1918 Egyptian nationalists renewed their calls for the immediate evacuation of British forces and Egyptian independence. The British government sought to resist these demands, a policy that detonated a series of protests across the country, known as the 1919 Revolution, which saw nationalists fronting a broad-based coalition of forces.
The same year witnessed an explosion in industrial unrest unleashed after the enforced moderation of the war years. A strike in the Suez Canal in May was the prelude to an outbreak of strikes in August by Egyptian and foreign workers in Cairo and Alexandria and the establishment of a large number of new labor syndicates. Anarchosyndicalists again played a leading part in this movement. Pizzuto at the head of the printers’ union led the move to set up a Bourse de Travail in Cairo in the summer of 1919 before being deported in September. In February 1921, after considerable planning the General Confederation of Labor (Confédération Générale du Travail, CGT, or Ittihad al-niqabat al-‘am) was established in Alexandria with anarchist
Joseph Rosenthal as one of its chief organizers. The CGT brought together almost three thousand mostly foreign workers from twentyone unions, but it was a measure of Rosenthal’s standing at the time that he was visited privately later in the year by Mustafa al-Nahas, a leading member of the Wafd and future Egyptian Prime Minister.
These years also saw a reconfiguration of radical political forces. In August 1921 the Egyptian Socialist Party (ESP), the precursor of Egyptian Communist Party, was established. Based in Cairo with branches in Alexandria and the Delta, it claimed a party membership of fifteen hundred by late 1922 drawn from both Egyptian nationals and resident foreigners. Its program was anti-imperialist, calling for the liberation of the Nile Valley (Egypt and the Sudan), and anti-capitalist. Its economic and social principles owed a significant debt to anarchism even if it did embrace parliamentary politics. According to one of its leaders, the party aimed
to defend their [i.e. workers’] interests in parliament and elsewhere, and to work to force the government to issue social laws to protect the workers, who were left to the mercy of capitalism and its tyranny.
These words of Rosenthal, a key figure in radical politics of more than twenty years, suggest that many of those who had been anarchist militants before the war were now drawn to the party as the main vehicle for the radical challenge to the traditional political order. In this they finally agreed with their close rivals, the socialists with whom they had been doing battle and making common cause since the 1880s.
The early life of the ESP was marked by internal conflicts over policy and strategy prompting the departure of more moderate members. One contentious issue was the question of affiliation with the Communist International (Comintern). Following contacts with Moscow, a general meeting of the ESP in January 1923 accepted the necessary twenty one conditions for Comintern membership and the Communist Party of Egypt (ECP) was formally established, adopting a program that called for the end of the Capitulations and equal pay for Egyptian and foreign workers. Additional conditions were required, among them the expulsion of Rosenthal as an “undesirable” element, very probably because of his anarchist past, and possibly others with a similar record.
In 1922, the bitter dispute between Egyptian nationalists and Britain was temporarily settled by the British decision to unilaterally grant Egypt self-rule even if it reserved certain important powers to itself. At the beginning of 1924, Sa‘d Zaghlul at the head of the Wafd, became the head of Egypt’s first popularly elected government under the new constitution. He soon launched a sustained attack against the ECP and other radical opposition. For the rest of the 1920s and into the early 1930s communists, anarchists, socialist and radical nationalists were subject to a campaign of government repression. During this time anarchists themselves maintained a separate presence in Egypt but more research is required to establish how significant the movement was during this period. While its role was clearly diminished compared to its pre-war position, anarchist thought and international syndicalism continued to exercise some influence. In the 1930s the Atheists Circle and Les Libres Penseurs continued to operate in Cairo, attracting a new generation of socialists and free thinkers, some of whom would play a part in the revived left of the 1940s. By this time the labor movement drew ideological support from the communist movement and the Muslim Brotherhood but it nevertheless still owed something to its anarcho-syndicalist roots.
It was not only in the competition for the loyalties of workers that anarchists clashed with nationalists. There was a much more fundamental ideological gulf between the two movements. As Insabato had made clear,
... we do not love religious fanaticism but we find that those who wish to substitute religious fanaticism with that of fatherland, nationality, caste or class make progress go backwards.
Yet despite their profound differences nationalism and anarchism did share a common enemy, imperialism, and on more than one occasion became de facto allies in opposing it. Perhaps the earliest example of this was in 1882 when Malatesta and his companions joined Urabi’s forces to resist the British, less to assist the nationalist cause per se than to take advantage of the opportunity the situation offered for social revolution. For its part when the Watani Party embraced the labor movement, it nevertheless recognized the importance of allying with foreign workers and urged Egyptian workers during the tram strike of 1911 to, “Unite and strengthen yourselves and increase your numbers through combination and through unity with the European workers, your comrades”.
This confluence of political interest was repeated more forcefully during the 1919 Revolution when nationwide agitation against continued British rule and syndicalist activity between foreign and Egyptian labor worked together to improve working conditions. Nationalists were also influenced by the strategies and tactics of anarchism at home and abroad. The likelihood of the UPL influencing nationalist education policy has been mentioned. It seems clear the anarchist organization had influence on nationalist political activity more generally as well.
In the fifty years before World War I an anarchist community emerged in Egypt sustained by an expanding Mediterranean network of migration, labor mobility, communications and transport. Initially taken up by elements in the resident Italian community, it was gradually embraced by members of other communities who shared a radical view of social emancipation of social, economic and intellectual life. In the decade and a half before World War I anarcho-syndicalism, typified by the ‘international’ union, was a leading force in the organization and development of a militant labor movement. Calling for international solidarity among all workers, it adapted with little effort to a society characterized by ethnic and religious pluralism and articulated an anticapitalist, anti-nationalist discourse as it did battle with nationalist and other forces in seeking the support of the popular classes in Egypt. As a libertarian movement, anarchists may have had a less definable but still significant impact, along with socialists and liberals, on the advancement of secular thought in Egyptian intellectual life.
Despite these successes, the anarchist movement faced considerable difficulties in Egypt. The coercion of the state through a sustained campaign of surveillance, prosecution and occasionally deportation no doubt hampered the movement as did its characterization by the authorities as a group of dissolute, political adventurers promoting an alien ideology. More than this, however, the achievement that anarchists had made in formulating an anti-capitalist discourse, in calling for social emancipation and articulating the consciousness of workers would from the beginning of the 1920s, be appropriated by other forces, chiefly the Egyptian Communist Party and the Egyptian national movement.
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Lucien van der Walt
University of the Witwatersrand
This chapter examines the manner in which anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists confronted the national question in South Africa, particularly during the 1910s, the period of unquestioned syndicalist hegemony on the revolutionary left. The national question has been perhaps the single most important issue facing labor and the left in South Africa. It centers on two main elements: the deep racial and national divisions in the country, and the national oppression of the African, Colored and Indian majority. Both elements were deeply rooted in its colonial history, but also tightly entangled in its modern economy, as will be discussed later.
I argue that the local anarchists and syndicalists maintained a principled opposition to racial discrimination and oppression, and a principled commitment to the creation of a multiracial anti-capitalist, anti-statist movement. These two positions constituted the irreducible core of the libertarians’ approach to the national question—a distinctive approach that differed in critically significant ways from the later, Communist, “national-democratic” approach (of which more below).
However, it is important to distinguish between two key expressions of this approach, which had different tactical and practical implications. The first may be termed abstract-internationalism: this opposed popular prejudice as well as official discrimination, but failed to take a crucial step of combining this principled position with active, and specific, efforts to mobilize African, Colored, and Indian workers around both their class and national grievances. In practice, this approach was identified with a de facto focus on white labor.
The second may be termed the activist-integrationist approach: it developed strategies that moved from analysis and principle to consistent and targeted efforts to mobilize African, Colored, and Indian workers around both class and national issues. It enabled, it will be argued, the construction by 1921 of a genuinely multiracial revolutionary syndicalist movement, organized in a network of newspapers, unions and political groups, firmly committed to uniting the local working class to struggle simultaneously against the specific national oppression of the African, Colored and Indian majority, and the capitalist exploitation and state domination of the whole working class, African, Colored, Indian and white.
The vehicle of this combined struggle was usually envisaged as a revolutionary interracial One Big Union on the model of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or Wobblies): “The key to social regeneration ... to the new Socialist Commonwealth is to be found in the organization of a class conscious proletariat within the Industrial Union”, creating an Industrial Republic “administered ... democratically by the workers themselves”.
The One Big Union was to be the proletarian forge in which a common society embracing all, regardless of color, would be created. The aim of the working class revolution was not to constitute an independent national state. It was to overcome national and class inequality through the working class battle to constitute a self-managed libertarian socialist “Industrial Republic”: this would unite the African, Colored, Indian and white working people, and also form “an integral part of the International Industrial Republic”.
Not only did this vision come to dominate the radical left in the 1910s, but it enabled the anarchists and syndicalists to pioneer multiracial left-wing organization, as well as union work among the African people, to work alongside Colored and African nationalists, and to develop an increasingly sophisticated analysis of—and strategy to resolve—the national question.
While the libertarian movement was pioneered by white immigrant radicals, mainly of British and Jewish origin, the demographic profile of the movement changed radically over time. Thus, the local roll call of anarchists and syndicalist militants includes revolutionary people of color, like Ferd Cetiwe, K.C. Fredericks, Johnny Gomas, Hamilton Kraai, R.K. Moodley, Bernard Sigamoney and T.W. Thibedi, alongside white radicals like W.H. “Bill” Andrews, A.Z. Berman, S.P. Bunting, Andrew Dunbar, Henry Glasse, Wilfred Harrison, H.B. “Barney” Levinson and Ferdinand Marais.
The local syndicalist movement also came to center on a number of IWW-style unions in the major centers, based among people of color. Anticipated by the practice of South African (SA) General Workers’ Union in Cape Town in the first decade of the century (and by the aims of the local IWW formed in 1910), these unions included the Clothing Workers Industrial Union, the Indian Industrial Workers’ Union, the Horse Drivers’ Union, the Industrial Workers’ of Africa, and the Sweet and Jam Workers’ Industrial Union in the 1910s. Together they represented several thousand people, and were among the very first unions among workers of color. Among white workers, the syndicalists had some influence in the Cape Federation of Labor Unions, the shopstewards’ and workers’ committee movement, and the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU). Political groups that promoted anarchism and syndicalism included the local Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the International Socialist League (ISL), the (separate) Industrial Socialist League (IndSL), and the Socialist Labor Party (SLP).
In the late 1910s, the local syndicalist movement also had a significant impact on formations like the South African Native National Congress (SANNC, 1912, renamed the African National Congress, or ANC, in 1923), and the African Political Organization (APO, 1902), representing African and Colored nationalist formations, respectively. Into the 1920s, syndicalist influences would continue within the radical wing of white labor (especially the Council of Action of 1920–1922), the early Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA, 1921), and the (predominantly African) Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU, 1919), which spread from South Africa into neighboring South West Africa, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia).
This analysis and research goes directly counter to the prevailing interpretation of the early history of the left in South Africa, and of its approach to the national question. Scholarship on these issues remains dominated by the interpretations developed by what I term the “Communist school”: writers identified with the CPSA and its underground successor, the South African Communist Party (SACP, f. 1953).
While the Communist school undoubtedly played a key role in pioneering left and labor history in South Africa from the 1940s, it has consistently caricatured the pre-CPSA left. Besides downplaying the achievements of anarchism and syndicalism, it has tended to treat the early left as basically a overwhelmingly white movement that at best viewed “the national oppression of the majority” as “not really very worthy of consideration”—and, at worst, embraced “white supremacy” and a “segregation policy”. This is part of a larger interpretation of history—to which we return below—which treats the CPSA/SACP, and the larger Communist International (Comintern), as the unique repository of a revolutionary, socialist, answer to the national question.
Only recently has the history of anarchism and syndicalism started to be taken more seriously, but there has been little in the way of a serious reappraisal of their engagement with the national question. Such a reappraisal not only has significant implications for the interpretation of labor and left history in South Africa, but also enables the recovery of the impressive history of early black socialist radicalism—ironically, a casualty of the Communist school’s analysis.
The area that became South Africa comprised a range of distinctive agrarian societies—English, Afrikaner, and African—in the 1860s, when the discovery of diamonds (1867) in Kimberley, followed by gold (1886) on the Witwatersrand (the “Rand” or “Reef ”), precipitated an industrial revolution. Large-scale foreign investment poured in from large European investors seeking new outlets for capital, and by 1913 nearly half the world’s total gold output came from roughly fifty square miles on the Witwatersrand. Less than 15 percent of gold mining shares were held locally in 1913, with mining investments dwarfing all other Western investments in the entire continent. Mining was centralized in a small oligopoly, working closely with state industries and infrastructure: this set the pattern for the industries that followed.
The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 by British imperialism as a self-governing Dominion. It brought together a multiracial, multinational and polyglot population under a single state, but not on equal terms. The Transvaal and Orange Free State—the Afrikaner republics—were conquered in the brutal Anglo-Boer War (1899– 1902), yet were included as provinces alongside Britain’s Cape and Natal colonies. The African polities, such as the Pedi and Zulu kingdoms, which had been conquered in 1879, were included as well, but as subject “Native Reserves”. Following World War I, German South West Africa came under South African trusteeship, but was not formally incorporated.
The majority of the country’s mine workforce was drawn from the defeated African majority of South Africa and the neighboring territories (such as Basutoland, Mozambique, and Northern and Southern Rhodesia). The Africans—the indigenous, black, Bantuspeaking population, or “natives” in colonial parlance—had been subject to accelerating processes of white conquest in the 19th century, and held no independent territories by the turn of the century. In 1920, barely half (51 percent) of the African miners were drawn from within South Africa itself: 36 percent came from Portuguese Mozambique, and the remainder from other colonial territories. Most were male migrants who lived in closed hostels (“compounds”), later returning to their rural homesteads, a model of controlled migrant labor pioneered on the mines but emulated in other urban industries.
This cheap and nominally unskilled workforce was effectively indentured by rigid contracts, unlike the skilled miners and artisans, who were initially mainly immigrant, often English-speaking, white workers, drawn largely from across the British Empire. Later including a growing number of Afrikaners, they developed into a permanently urbanized, and free, workforce. By 1913, the Witwatersrand mines employed 195,000 Africans (mainly laborers, but also clerks and security guards), and 22,000 white workers. A further 37,000 Africans worked in domestic service, with 6,000 in factories, workshops and warehouses; there were also 16,500 white workers in building, tramways, printing, electricity and other industries, including 4,500 on the state railways.
Besides ongoing African-white conflicts, boiling over into race riots in some of the multiracial Witwatersrand slums, there were also ethnic divisions among the Africans. Compounds were divided on ethnic lines, and there was a degree of occupational segregation underground and a long history of violent inter-ethnic “faction-fights”. There were also divisions between the (largely skilled) white immigrants and the (largely unskilled) local Afrikaners, further complicated by substantial East European Jewish immigration. A third of whites were classified as poor or very poor: most were proletarianized Afrikaners, trekking to the unfamiliar cities to take “orders like black people” and speak the English of the conquering British.
Free workers in general—the whites, the large Indian population of Natal, and the Colored group, mainly in the Cape—were concentrated in the cities, terrified of replacement by each other, as well as by the mass of cheap African labor, concentrated at the very bottom of society. The small urban African population (that is, excluding the mining compounds) outside the mines was around 40,000 in 1909 in Johannesburg, the hub of the Witwatersrand; most were South Africans. It lived in a twilight world: faced with segregation and discrimination, it was at the bottom of the local racial hierarchy, yet at the same time also free labor. Compounding all these divisions were issues like language: on the mines, for instance, communication between African and white took place mainly through an impoverished pidgin called fanakolo; in 1904, only five percent of Natal Indians were literate in English.
The marginalized African and Colored middle classes formed and led the early nationalist movements like the SANNC, and the APO. They lived in a situation where cheap African labor formed the bedrock of the mines—as well as state industry, and the growing commercial farming and manufacturing sectors—and where the cheapness of African labor was primarily a function of the blacks’ historic incorporation into the country as a subject people: in this sense, local “capitalist relations of exploitation were constructed upon colonial relations of domination”.
The Union parliament was restricted to white men, the new British Dominion being founded firmly on a principle of white supremacy. Africans were represented largely through traditional authorities—by indirect rule—or through various advisory structures, but were largely ruled by fiat. In the Cape, however, a preexisting qualified franchise based was retained into the 1930s. In that province, one-third of white men were disenfranchized in 1909, while Africans and Coloreds comprised 15 percent of the electorate. A similar, albeit far more restrictive, system operated in Natal. In the two northern provinces, race sufficed as a voting qualification.
On the eve of apartheid in 1948—in which Afrikaner nationalists extended the segregation policies of the first four decades of Union— there were two main approaches to the national question on the part of labor and the left.
The first was identified with the mainstream white labor movement, and dated back to the late 19th century: social democracy plus segregation, with welfare and industrial reform running alongside job reservation and preferential employment for whites, urban segregation, and Asian repatriation. Essentially, this “White Laborism” answered the national question by seeking to perpetuate white domination—sometimes softened by a rhetorical support for Africans and Coloreds “developing on their own lines” in reserved areas.
White Laborism was the platform of the union-backed South African (SA) Labor Party launched in 1910. It was also identified with the main union center, the South African Industrial Federation (SAIF), a loose body claiming 47,001 members in 45 affiliated unions in 1919. White Laborism’s roots lay partly in the traditions of the first unions: these were craft bodies formed by immigrants, mainly from the 1880s, and their craft exclusiveness soon blurred into a larger racial exclusiveness; this was carried over into later industrial unions, and was reinforced by fierce class struggles that saw employers pit African and white against one another. The most tumultuous was the great Rand Revolt of 1922—a general strike by white labor that escalated into an armed rebellion, as well as racial clashes—which was directly precipitated by an attempt to replace white miners with African miners. Many elements of White Laborism would be adopted by mainstream Afrikaner nationalism.
The second key approach to the national question was identified with the CPSA from 1928 when—under pressure from the Communist International (Comintern)—it adopted the “Native Republic” thesis. This defined the key task of the party as establishing “an Independent South African Native Republic as a stage towards the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic, guaranteeing protection and complete equality towards all national minorities”. This approach effectively answered the national question by separating national liberation and socialism into separate stages with distinct strategic tasks, with the first stage aiming at the “bourgeois-democratic” goal of black majorityrule in an independent republic. (The Comintern applied this twostage approach—formal independence first, socialism later—across the colonial and semi-colonial world at this time, also considering it as a program for the “black belt” region of the United States of America).
There was some disagreement in the CPSA over the concrete implications of the Native Republic. In the first place, the new approach was adopted during Comintern’s “New Line” era (1928–1935), which stressed the need to Bolshevize parties by purging unreliable elements, and to end all cooperation with noncommunists: revolution was assumed to be imminent. This suggested that the CPSA would lead both stages, if necessary through front organizations. This lent itself, in turn, to the view that the Native Republic would assume a radical character under party control, and so, shift rapidly into socialism—rather like Mao Zedong’s and Le Duan’s version of two-stage theory.
After the New Line era ended, the approach was abandoned. The party was initially divided over whether the CPSA should lead the first stage of the struggle, or leave that role to the African (or perhaps even the Afrikaner) nationalists. Ultimately, it decided to aim at a “united front” of “all nationalities and all anti-colonialist classes”, led by the ANC and fighting for a unitary, democratic and capitalist state with land reform and partial nationalization. Thus if the two-stage theory had always suggested that the first stage be undertaken by some sort of cross-class nationalist front, this final formulation suggested that this must be embodied in an explicitly nationalist movement for “nationaldemocratic revolution,” independent of party control.
The party had, in effect, ultimately reduced itself a support group for the African nationalists, viewing nationalism as the true bearer of national liberation, rather than as merely one approach to national liberation. Thus, the CPSA/SACP—which was in the 1930s and 1940s both numerically larger than the ANC, and dramatically more influential in unions and in black communities—surrendered its energies, and its proclaimed vanguard role, to its weaker nationalist rival.
As the CPSA developed, its leadership naturally wished to chronicle its history and to establish its claims to be “the true vanguard of the workers in the fight for the liberation of South Africa”, bathed in the “light of Marxist-Leninist science”. As part of this project, the Communist school argued that the pre-CPSA left was comprised of two main currents, often co-existing within the same groups.
The first comprised the proto-Bolsheviks, a minority described as the “Communist nucleus” of “true socialists”. This referred to a number of veteran radicals who not only helped found but also played a key role in CPSA. In Communist school texts, these activists are seen to have a sort of instinctive Bolshevism even before the CPSA, supposedly “closely approaching the stand of Lenin”. Later, this provided the foundation of the CPSA. The other current comprised, supposedly, everyone else on the early left—the anarchists and syndicalists featuring prominently but, critically, as never more than an annoying minority—and was basically seen as providing a series of object lessons in the errors of “ultra-left” posturing, sectarian ineffectiveness, and abstract dogmatism.
In general, then, the pre-CPSA left was seen as rather a failure, although it contained within itself the germs of the “true vanguard”. This was exemplified by its approaches to the national question: the proto-Bolshevik minority advocated “a more strictly ‘working class’ attitude towards the blacks”; the rest, predictably, failed to address the national question adequately. At best, they “ignored” the “revolutionary significance” of equal rights. Viewing “the national oppression of the majority of people in our country” as “not really very worthy of consideration”, they “studiously” “evaded the color issue”. At worst, they embraced key elements of White Laborism, and overtly supported segregation and color bars.
It fell to the proto-Bolsheviks, then, to “pioneer socialist work among the black workers”, and move “step by step” towards an “appreciation” of the “true nature” of the problem. Despite their great efforts, even these bold pioneers failed. It was only in the CPSA of the late 1920s that the national question was first adequately addressed, when with the “fraternal assistance of the world Communist movement and the inspiration of Lenin’s ideas”, the CPSA adopted the “Native Republic” thesis. Only then could the party grasp the “revolutionary” character of African nationalism, leading to the “fusion” of class struggle and national struggle—in concrete terms, an alliance between the CPSA/ SACP and the ANC, finally established in the late 1940s.
According to this narrative, in short, the left before the CPSA was basically a white movement; it could only indigenize from the late 1920s when it adopted the two-stage approach; and it was the growing understanding of Marxism-Leninism—the achievement, alone, of the CPSA/SACP—that first provided an adequate basis to address the national question. This narrative then points to the rapid recruitment of people of color into the CPSA in the late 1920s as evidence of the correctness of the Native Republic, and as, supposedly, the first instance of black adherence to a radical socialist position.
These claims are all highly doubtful, as indicated in the opening statements in this chapter, and as will be now demonstrated in the following discussion. The local anarchist tradition may be dated back to the 1880s and the tireless efforts of Henry Glasse. An Englishman born in 1857 in Surat, India, Glasse was involved in radical London circles before moving to Port Elizabeth by the start of the 1880s. This was a thriving port but rapidly losing ground to Cape Town—capital of the Cape Colony, and later the seat of the Union parliament—in the battle for trade with the inland mining centers.
Glasse worked in a range of jobs, including a stint on the Witwatersrand mines, wrote for Peter Kropotkin’s Freedom in London and the Cape labor press, and engaged with workers through the local Mechanics’ Institute, a worker-education center. In short, he was rather typical of the radical European immigrants who introduced the various socialist trends into South Africa in the late 19th century.
It was in South Africa that Glasse translated a number of key works by Kropotkin; these remain the standard English editions. He also acted as a local distributor of Freedom Press materials, like Errico Malatesta’s pamphlets, and Kropotkin’s Russian-language paper, Kleb i Volya (“Bread and Liberty”), which was sold mainly to local Jewish anarchists. In 1901, Freedom Press published Glasse’s Socialism the Remedy, and the following year his The Superstition of Government was honored by being jointly published with Kropotkin’s Organized Vengeance, Called “Justice”. Around this time, he managed to form a Socialist Club, to which he gave his “exposition of Socialism from the Anarchist or Libertarian Standpoint” to a “very good audience”. Like Kropotkin, he was very favorably disposed to syndicalism, looking to the “great and final conflict—the General Strike which will also be the Social Revolution”.
While Glasse’s writings sometimes rested on fairly general and abstract arguments (“Peasant, seize the land; workman, seize the factory”), he was keenly aware of the impact of colonialism, and the specific problems faced by Africans as a conquered people. Writing to Kropotkin, he argued:
I have worked in the mine with them, and lived among them in the Cape Colony, and now I am trading with them; and I can assure you, dear comrade, that I would rather live among them, than among many who call themselves ‘civilized’. You can still find among them the principle of Communism—primitive Communism ... I have seen among them, such brotherly love, such human feelings, such help for one another that are quite unknown between ‘civilized’ people ...
Glasse’s idealization of pre-capitalist cultures (and ironic play on the Western claim to be “civilized”) was linked to a detailed critique of an order that “robbed and ill-treated” the Africans:
They must not walk on the pavement, but in the middle of the road. They must not ride in cabs or tram, and in the trains there are separate compartments for them, just like cattle trucks. They must have passes a la Russia, and are allowed to live only in the ‘location’, those Ghettos set aside for them. They are not allowed to be on the streets after 9 p.m., in the land that was once their own—their Fatherland!
This outraged critique was a critical step in the application of anarchist working class internationalism to the South African situation. Glasse took a further, crucial, step when he argued for an interracial working class movement with the correct position “in regard to the native and colored question”: race hatred was used to divide and rule. “For a white worker in this South Africa to pretend he can successfully fight his battle independent of the colored wage slaves—the vast majority—is, to my mind, simply idiocy”.
This line of thought was also characteristic of the Cape Town-based SDF. This was founded on May Day, 1904, emerged from among skilled white workers, and in 1905, co-organized Cape Town’s first May Day with the local Trades and Labor Council. The city had grown dramatically: in 1891, Port Elizabeth’s population was 23,000 compared to Cape Town’s 79,000; by 1904, the figures were 33,000 to 170,000, respectively. It had been boosted by 70,000 newcomers: 34,000 from Europe, mainly from Britain, but including 9,000 Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe; 21,000 Coloreds; 9,000 Africans; 2,000 Afrikaners; and 2,000 Indians. A major port, it benefited from close links to Kimberley and Johannesburg and British military activity, and developed a significant manufacturing and service sector with the aid of access to cheap imported inputs for products like paint and soap.
Port Elizabeth was a largely African and white city, but Cape Town was shaped decisively by the large Colored population. In the South African context, “Colored” refers to a category of Westernized, mixed-race, people of color largely descended from the old Cape’s underclasses, and mainly Afrikaans-speaking. In the local racial hierarchy, Coloreds stood above the Africans, but below the dominant whites, although most were wretchedly poor. Not only did the majority of Coloreds live in the western and northern Cape, including Cape Town and Kimberley, but in these regions they formed the clear majority overall. Moreover, the combined Colored and white population in these areas greatly overshadowed the African population. Africans were only 4 percent of the Cape Town population by 1921, and just 14 percent of the city’s industrial workforce in 1924 despite rapid industrialization.
This demography was quite unique in the Union, and meant that the majority of the Cape Town working class was free labor. While most Coloreds were laborers, there was an important and growing artisan layer, many of whom could vote. There was also a relatively high degree of social integration between Colored and white: for example, many although not all Cape craft unions admitted Coloreds, quite unlike the situation in other regions. The Cape Federation of Labor Unions (1913, succeeding bodies like the Trades and Labor Council) therefore remained outside the segregationist SAIF, which in turn made few inroads into the northern and western Cape. The Federation was rather small, with sixteen affiliates by 1919, the largest with barely 400 members; it was not more than 6,000 strong. Yet Coloreds faced growing official segregation and popular discrimination from the late 19th century, with low Colored wages a symptom of a widening divide in the working class movement.
The SDF appears in the Communist school texts as a small church of “evangelical socialists” that ignored issues like race, while supposedly cleaving to the dogmatic Marxism of “Hyndman in England”. This is rather an uncharitable, not to mention misleading, description of an organization that was by any measure one of the most important socialist groups before the CPSA. With a large and often dominant anarchist wing, its achievements included organizing interracial unions and unemployed demonstrations, producing the country’s first 20th century socialist paper, and being the first left group to have its members jailed for their anti-capitalist beliefs; it also helped found the CPSA itself.
Initially, the SDF was a moderate body, and statist besides, with a reform platform that did not even mention socialism, despite the group’s early sympathy for H.M. Hyndman’s Marxist SDF in Britain. From this improbable beginning, the group would come to play a key role in the emergence of a strong anarchist current in Cape Town.
In the first place, unlike the Hyndman SDF, its membership was always politically diverse, including “anarchists, reform socialists, guild socialists”,70 with the strong “anarchist section” including key figures like “Levinson, Strauss, Hahne, Ahrens and others ... all of European origin”. Glasse also linked up with the group, writing for its press. These anarchists played a key role in pushing the organization to the left, and set its pace; although it was never a purely anarchist formation, it cannot be described in any meaningful way as “Marxist”, nor properly understood unless the often dominant anarchist influence is admitted.
In the second place, there was a major conflict among the founder members in the first two years: this led the more moderate and statist element to withdraw, and left Harrison, a carpenter, unionist and exsoldier, the key figure in the SDF. Harrison’s ascendancy was important not only because of his excellent organizing skills, charisma and dynamism, but also because of his deep commitment to anarchism. A “staunch and unwavering class fighter”, he was a brilliant speaker who embraced the views of his friend Kropotkin. It was Harrison who first used the word “communism” in the South African press, discussing anarchist-communism. An “inveterate soap-box orator” who breathed “hellfire and brimstone at capitalism” with a “fluent tongue”, he told crowds of Africans, Coloreds and whites at SDF rallies that:
Capitalism was on its last legs ... Fields, factories and workshops were to be owned and controlled by those who worked in them ... Kropotkin had proved that the problem of production had been solved. It now remained only a question of ownership and distribution ... laws—as we know them—will be quite unnecessary.
Even skeptics were impressed by the “forceful and appealing way” he “presented his case”, which “might almost have convinced many that the Social and Economic Revolution was about to take place next day, or at the very latest by the end of that week”. The SDF’s short-lived monthly, the Cape Socialist, continued the theme, mixing commentary and notices with lengthy extracts from Kropotkin, courtesy of Glasse.
The SDF set up a bookshop, reading room, refreshment bar, a “Socialist Hall” and reading circle at its first offices in Adderley street, and held Sunday talks at the van Riebeeck statue on the Cape Parade, the central public space; it also hired the City Hall on occasion; there were also SDF events at the “Stone” in Clifton street in District Six, a multiracial but mainly Colored slum. Both the statue and the Stone provided Hyde Park-style speaker’s corners, the former frequented mainly by Coloreds and whites, the latter mainly by Coloreds and Africans. Activities at the Stone were organized via former APO leader, unionist, and SDF sympathizer, John Tobin. Obsessed with using every available platform for propaganda, the SDF, the anarchist Harrison included, stood candidates in elections—without any real intention of taking office if elected.
Major SDF events could attract thousands of people. When the SDF campaigned against World War I, its meetings at the Parade packed the Dock Road from the Flat Iron Building to the Carlton Hotel. Unlike the more segregated public sphere elsewhere, these public events routinely attracted significant numbers of Coloreds, as well as some Africans. As the SDF grew, it relocated to larger offices in Plein and Barrack streets, where it sublet space to unions, ran a refreshment bar, and kept a printing press. It provided members with an active social life, with visits to the beach, a choir, and even a few socialist christenings.
The SDF kept its platform open to a range of controversial speakers, like the young Mohandas Gandhi—then emerging as a champion of the local Indians—who at the time “declared himself a Socialist”. When James Keir Hardie of Britain’s Independent Labor Party toured South Africa in 1908, he was dogged by hostile white crowds incensed at his defense of African and Indian claims. After the Cape Trades and Labor Council fearfully canceled his reception, it was the SDF who hosted Hardie in an event that he fondly recalled as “far and away the most enthusiastic I had”. In 1910, it hosted British syndicalist Tom Mann, another radical who defended people of color, impressing the APO with his “vigorous appeal to all wage-earners to organize and present a united front”.
These actions show up the Communist school claim that the SDF “ignored” race or saw it as a “side issue”, or never “in practice” took “steps to organize the nonwhite worker or to openly propagate racial equality”. Identifying with Hardie, and then Mann, strengthened its already favorable reputation among Coloreds, but that reputation rested on a deeper opposition to racism. Like Glasse, Harrison viewed racial prejudice as basically caused by capitalism, and as antithetical to working class interests: he was quick to put down the perennial hecklers on this issue.
Alone on the Cape union and left scene, the SDF condemned the draft Act of the Union of South Africa in 1909: its color bar clauses were “contrary to all Democratic principles, and an insult to the colored races of South Africa”. This aligned it with the APO, then mounting a vigorous campaign against what it viewed as an “un-British” and “retrogressive” bill. While the SDF participated in several of the meetings leading to the founding of the SA Labor Party, it withdrew once a reformist and segregationist platform was adopted. The SDF’s unstinting critique of the British Empire even garnered praise from De Burger (“The Citizen”), the Afrikaner nationalist paper then edited by D.F. Malan.
By 1910 the SDF could report that it was developing a Colored constituency, anticipating the interracial membership of the CPSA by nearly twenty years. Such, indeed, was its credibility of the SDF among Coloreds that Harrison won 212 votes against APO leader Doctor Abdullah Abdurrahman’s 543 in a campaign in District Six, notwithstanding Abdurrahman’s powerful political machine. Meanwhile, the SDF set up a propaganda commission to reach Africans, gave talks in Afrikaans as well as isiXhosa, drew people of color into its committees, and reach out to the APO; this influenced Abdurrahman himself to sometimes employ socialist rhetoric. The APO hired the Socialist Hall for its 1909 conference, and backed an SDF candidate in the 1910 municipal elections.
Meanwhile, SDF activists like Harrison and J. Dibble of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners sought to remove union color bars, to unionize Coloreds, and to secure equal pay. As noted, some Cape craft unions admitted Coloreds. Now, Harrison and company pushed this further: in 1905, the SDF, with Trades and Labor Council backing launched the SA General Workers’ Union, “open to all branches of labor who have not a specific Union to join”, regardless of race. It drew in Colored and white bricklayers and painters, Jewish tailors and boot makers, tramway workers, and Greek and Jewish cigarette rollers, becoming a major part of the local union movement. SDF members and Jewish workers also initiated a tailors’ union of “all nationalities”, although this had little success in drawing in Coloreds. With the APO and others, the SDF set out to unionize the cabinet makers, painters, printers and paperhangers. When the cigarette rollers struck, and were locked out, the strikers set up a “Knock Out” and “Lock Out” cigarette cooperative on SDF premises; SDF enthusiasts had previously set up short-lived co-operatives by bakers and boot makers.
The onset of depression helped drive the strikes, and also prompted SDF efforts at running soup kitchens in District Six. The SDF also took the lead in organized mass meetings of the multiracial unemployed in mid-1906, where cigarette maker and SDF anarchist Levinson called for direct action by the hungry. Young German radical Otto Meyer demanded the crowds “Bring arms, and plenty of ammunition and a black flag”. Marches on parliament, led by Harrison, Tobin and others, and backed by the APO and the unions, eventually led to three days of looting and clashes with police. Nearly fifty rioters were arrested and charged, while Levinson, Cape Socialist editor Abraham Needham, and Meyer were arrested for inflammatory speeches—“the first time ... South African socialists found themselves jailed for their beliefs”. Although Levinson was acquitted, Meyer got twelve months with hard labor.
Around this time, the left on the Witwatersrand displaced that of the western Cape in importance. A critical development was the 1908 launch of South Africa’s first socialist weekly, the Voice of Labor, in Johannesburg. Initially this paper was a free information sheet used to promote a short-lived General Workers’ Union at the Witwatersrand, Kimberley and Bloemfontein, the latter the capital of the old Orange Free State. When the union foundered, the paper was reinvented as a socialist paper by Archie Crawford, a radical fitter, and his partner Mary Fitzgerald; it claimed a very respectable circulation of 2,000 at its height. The energetic Harrison helped proofread the paper, wrote pieces, and arranged for its Cape distribution via the SDF.
In practice, the Voice of Labor was basically an open forum that networked “the leading Socialists of Durban, Kimberley, Bloemfontein, Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg”, and sometimes Southern Rhodesia. Its contents were consequently very varied, especially initially: alongside articles on “The State and the Child” and “Good Government” could be found articles on anarchism, syndicalism, and the merits of direct action over parliamentary politics by Glasse, Harrison and others.
Crawford (and thus, the Voice of Labor) appears in the works of the Communist school as a man “tempted to compromise” on race, who “evaded the color issue” and failed to critique the SA Labor Party’s embrace of “white supremacy”. This demonstrates the Communist school’s tendency to caricature the pre-CPSA left, for Crawford repeatedly insisted, on the contrary, that “Socialism passes over geographic boundaries and transcends all lines, which some diseased organs of society seek ... to draw between Races and colors”.
Crawford dismissed segregation as “foolish in the extreme”, lambasted the unions for ignoring the “300,000 colored workers on the Rand, two-thirds ... on the mines”, and championed the local Indians’ struggle against increasingly restrictive legislation. He walked out of the founding of the SA Labor Party when his opposition to its segregationist platform was rejected, and ran as a candidate for the small Socialist Party in the 1910 general elections. In his campaign, Crawford argued “on the question of Color, and at more than one time it looked like he would be torn to pieces by an ignorant mob”.
The significance of Crawford’s stance as editor was that it set the tone for the Voice and the network that emerged around it, with a solid commitment to working class solidarity across the color line that also linked it to IWW-style syndicalism then emerging locally. Local radicals shared the “disillusion ... in the value of parliamentary reform” that was “spreading from Europe, from Britain, America, Australia and New Zealand”, and embraced the “doctrines of the revolutionary Syndicalists with their faith in the industrial struggle and the general strike and their mistrust of politics”.
Mann’s 1910 tour, which preached the “gospel ... of a complete change of society” and the “perfected system industrial organization to make this possible”, directly inspired the founding of the local SLP in Johannesburg in March 1910. Often misunderstood as a “Marxist” organization, it was a syndicalist group following the doctrines of Daniel De Leon, the American IWW leader. Links with De Leonism were mainly, however, with the SLP in Scotland, which was the core of the British SLP (1903), rather than De Leon in Detroit. Scots provided key members of the local group: Jock Campbell, the “leader”, J.M. Gibson, the key ideologue, John Campbell, and Ralph Rabb and W. Reid. Also important were Jews like Israel Israelstam, who also had links to the Jewish Bund and the SDF, Englishmen like the union activist Charlie Tyler, and even that rarity on the left, an Afrikaner, the chemist Philip Roux.
At Mann’s urging, the Witwatersrand Trades and Labor Council— forerunner of the SAIF—sponsored an Industrial Workers Union to organize workers ineligible for the craft bodies. This held regular Sunday night meetings at the Market Square—Johannesburg’s equivalent of Cape Town’s Parade—and managed to secure the affiliation of the independent Bootmakers’ Association, the Bakers’ and Confectioners’ Society, and the Tailors’ Society. Local syndicalists like the Irish tram driver Tom Glynn nonetheless viewed the union as a “disgrace to the originators” of radical industrial unionism, the IWW, because of its links to the moderate Council and the segregationist SA Labor Party.
Rather than boycott the Industrial Workers Union, however, the syndicalists entered it. Glynn was soon elected its secretary-general, and along with other “industrialists”—notably the Scottish blacksmith, Dunbar—“captured the organization and put it on a proper basis” in June 1910. It was renamed the IWW, called itself a “class-conscious revolutionary organization embracing all workers regardless of craft, race or color”, declared war on craft unionism, and linked up with the IWW in Chicago.
Dunbar was a “hefty, stubborn-headed, well-meaning Scotsman”: a fine orator, he made his reputation leading a two-week strike on the Natal railways in 1906, and despised all political parties. He was a fixture at the IWW’s Sunday night meetings at the Market Square—held separately from those of the SLP, which met there in the mornings, where the party sold a “steady stream of journals and pamphlets” like The Socialist from Scotland and The Weekly People from the United States.
Despite the loss of supporters like the Bootmakers’, who protested the new direction, the IWW held successful meetings at the government railway yards in Pretoria, the old Transvaal capital which lay just north of Johannesburg, setting up a “Pretoria Local”. The IWW was also established in the port city of Durban, the principal center in Natal. This section was strongly identified with a “comrade Webber”, who specialized in “phrase-making, blood-curdling class war propaganda”. He debated Tommy Boydell of the SA Labor Party before a large crowd at the Durban Town Gardens on “Syndicalism versus Socialism”.
Like Cape Town, Durban was defined by “the harbor, the railway and the commerce with the mineral-rich interior”, and developed a significant service and manufacturing sector. The two cities accounted, in fact, for more than half of national manufacturing by the 1920s. From 1905 Durban had the shortest rail link to the Witwatersrand, enabling it to replace Cape Town as the main port. The population by 1910 was 65,000 (around half was white, primarily English-speaking), although the total number doubles if the outlying areas are included. A quarter of the settled population were Indians, mainly descended from indentured laborers, largely low-caste Hindus. While an Indian bourgeoisie emerged, most local Indians were workers, along with small farmers and an educated elite: doctors, interpreters, lawyers, teachers and clerks. Despite the best efforts of officials to whittle down the Indian vote, it was a serious factor in a number of wards in Durban.
While the IWW in Pretoria and Durban seem to have been primarily propaganda circles, in Johannesburg the IWW successfully formed a powerful Municipal Industrial Union among the white tram drivers and conductors employed by the city. This followed a successful wildcat strike led by Glynn, which was also supported by the municipal power station’s staff. Gathered at the tram yards in Newtown, and wearing “bits of red ribbon”, the strikers forced the municipality to capitulate within hours. The IWW subsequently boasted of its intention to break the restrictive labor laws, which stipulated compulsory conciliation, whenever necessary. The American IWW press was enthusiastic: “they are getting on the right track down in the Southern Hemisphere”.
With between 300 and 400 members, the IWW now compared favorably to major unions like the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (the ASE, with 1351 in 1910) and the Transvaal Miners Association (at 800 in 1909). A second strike followed on the trams in April 1911. This was precipitated by the sacking of Wobblies Glynn and W.P. Glendon after the IWW led a boycott of an official inquiry, in the course of which a witness was assaulted.
Following fiery speeches at the tramway sheds and at the Market Square, attended by around 500 people, a second strike began. It was waged in the face of a ban on public meetings, with clashes with police led by women like Fitzgerald, and the arrest of the SLP’s John Campbell, the IWW’s Dunbar and the SA Labor Party’s Andrews for speeches. Two IWWs, William Whittaker and T. Morant, were arrested when dynamite was found on the tram tracks. The strike collapsed after a week, 70 workers were fired, and Glynn got three months hard labor, commenting that “if Government ownership, as our political Socialists tell us, is a ‘step in the right direction’ God help the slaves when they take the wrong one”.
Still, the IWW scored a point when it was shown that Whittaker and Morant had been framed by John Sherman, an agent provocateur. This led to a series of large IWW meetings in Pretoria that denounced that “working class traitor and spy”, now working on the railways. In Johannesburg, meanwhile, the Market Square meetings continued to attract considerable crowds. In October 1911 a “Pickhandle Brigade”, including Dunbar, Glynn, Fitzgerald and Morant, disrupted the election meetings of incumbent councilors who had been involved in the crackdown on the IWW tramway workers. Glynn, however, was blacklisted locally, and eventually left the country: he ended up in Australia, where he edited the IWW’s Direct Action and was arrested during the wartime repression of the Wobblies.
The Voice of Labor had also become something of a de facto syndicalist organ at this time. Crawford left the country from 1910 to 1911, visiting radical labor groups in three continents. The editorship now passed to “Proletarian” in Cape Town—probably the Cape militant Ferdinand Marais—a vociferous syndicalist. The paper never quite lost its open character, but its copy was now heavily weighted towards IWW and SLP materials. As an observer noted at the time, “From Trades Unionism and Politics”, the Voice had “flowed to Industrial
Unionism and Direct Action”. Even the SDF was swept up in the syndicalist wave. It joined the IWW, SLP and the Johannesburg-based Socialist Party in a short-lived “Industrial Freedom League” for a “united advocacy of Industrial Unionism” in May 1911.
As noted above, Crawford’s reputation has fared badly at the hands of the Communist School. So, too, it must be said, have those of the IWW and SLP. Relying on the Communist school, Elaine Katz viewed these groups as failing to take a principled position on the national question. She added the charge that the IWW complained bitterly in the Voice of Labor about the use of auxiliary African police in the May 1911 tramway strike. Pieter van Duin cited Communist school works, plus Katz, to make even bolder critiques of the IWW. Marcel van der Linden, in turn, cited Katz and van Duin in order to suggest that the South African IWW was remarkable for breaking with the traditional syndicalist opposition to racism.
The problem, however, is that the primary material provides little support for these arguments. In the first place, the IWW’s statement in the Voice of Labor, to which Katz alluded, did not take issue with the race of the police—only the repressive actions of the police in general, black or white. One speaker who took the platform in the mid-1911 strike is on record for fuming against the use of black forces against white strikers: he was, however, a member of the SA Labor Party, not of the syndicalist IWW or SLP.
The position of the IWW on the national question was unambiguous: “fight the class war with the aid of all workers, whether efficient or inefficient, skilled or unskilled, white or black”. The SLP men, too, were “pioneers in the adoption of an enlightened policy towards the Colored peoples”, promoting “unity among all wage slaves, regardless of color”; Jock Campbell was famed as the first Witwatersrand socialist “to make propaganda among the African workers”. Mann’s tour provided a further reference point, for he told his Johannesburg audience: “Whatever number there are, get at them all, and if there are another 170,000 available, white or black, get at them too”. He viewed the local unions as beset by a “suicidal sectional unionism” and lambasted the white man acting “towards the black man as a most superior and lordly personage”.
“Proletarian”, likewise, advocated “an organization of wage-workers, black and white, male and female, young and old”, which would proclaim “a universal general strike preparatory to seizing and running the interests of South Africa, for the benefit of workers to the exclusion of parasites”. The African workers would inevitably organize for “mutual protection” and “revolt against wage slavery”, and the “only logical thing for white slaves to do is to throw in their lot with the black wage slave in a common assault on the capitalist system”. “Proletarian” opposed the Defense Bill introduced soon after Union, which established the national army while essentially restricting armed service in the national army to whites. This was partly on anti-militarist grounds, but partly because he viewed the Bill as a deliberate attempt to use white workers against black: a “native rising”, he stressed, would be a “wholly justified” response to “cruel exploitation” and should receive the active “sympathy and support of every white wage-slave”.
It follows that the de facto failure of the IWW and SLP to recruit across the color line, thereby realizing their vision of an interracial One Big Union, cannot be attributed to racial prejudice or to obliviousness to the national question. Rather, it reflected their overall weakness as union organizers, at least outside the trams. This was compounded by the enormous practical difficulties of organizing the unfree African workers, the majority of the Witwatersrand working class.
The IWW and SLP’s strength lay rather in public propaganda, like the Market Square meetings, where radical speakers traditionally attracted a “little knot of native and colored men”. Leading politicians like John X. Merriman were convinced that the “ravings of the syndicalists” were “appealing, not I fear without success, both to the poorer Dutch [the Afrikaners] and to the Natives”.
At the same time, the failure to really organize across the color line also indicated the lack of a clear strategy to systematically develop linkages with workers of color. Specifically, the IWW and SLP did not link their principled opposition to racial oppression with active and specific efforts to mobilize African, Colored, and Indian workers around both their class and national concerns. In this sense, the SDF in Cape Town was more effective in addressing the national question, even though the SA General Workers’ Union lacked the grandiose syndicalist program of the IWW and SLP.
In May 1913, a dramatic general strike on the Witwatersrand started, which “shook the country like nothing had done since the Boer War”. Initiated by white miners, it spiraled rapidly across industries. Just as quickly, it slipped out of the control of the main unions involved, the Transvaal Federation of Trade Unions (another predecessor of the SAIF), and the independent National Union of Railway and Harbor Servants (NURHAS). On “Black Saturday”, July 5, imperial troops shot 25 people dead. Riots and gun battles left strikers in control of large parts of Johannesburg, the crowds drawing in the unemployed, the poor whites, and even some “Colored men”.
This was followed by a series of impressive strikes by African miners, lasting three days and involving 9,000. In October 1913, sporadic Indian passive resistance campaigns took a new turn with a general strike among Natal Indians on the coalfields, sugar farms and mills, and railways. This centered a £3 annual poll tax imposed on exindentured laborers, was initiated by Gandhi, and drew in 5,000.
The failure of the compromise that ended the 1913 general strike then led to a second general strike in January 1914. This time the state acted quickly, mobilizing the new South African Defense Force and the rural commando militia, declaring martial law, raiding the unions, arresting hundreds, and deporting nine key activists (among them, Crawford).
Several months later, the enforced social peace was again shattered when the country entered World War I on the British side. While the SANNC, APO and local Indian Congress suspended their activities to rally to the flag, hard-line Afrikaner nationalists launched an armed rebellion that split the army and mobilized around 12,000 insurgents, mainly rural poor whites. The SDF suffered a split when its pro-war minority broke away in September 1914. The SA Labor Party—which had grown massively in the wake of the massive labor struggles of 1913 and 1914—also split in 1915, when its radical anti-war section walked out.
Anarchism and syndicalism certainly played a role in all of the events of the stormy years. However, the official insistence that the two general strikes were the work of a “Syndicalist Conspiracy” is misleading. The syndicalist movement on the Witwatersrand was weak and divided by 1913.
On his return to South Africa, Crawford had attempted to forge a United Socialist Party, “without discrimination as to race, sex, color or creed”, including the IWW, SDF, SLP and other groups. The United Socialist Party platform was too vague to satisfy anyone and quite unable to overcome the existing divisions: the constituent groups were already firmly wedded to their existing programs; besides, each group clung jealously to its autonomy.
The SLP and IWW, for instance, had long sniped at one another, each being preoccupied with its claim to represent the “real” IWW tradition. Despite his professed interest in left unity, Crawford himself waged a campaign against Dunbar in 1911 and 1912 that effectively destroyed the IWW. The SLP also left the new party: “the U.S.P. believes in political reform whereas the emancipation of the working class can only be accomplished through their organization on the industrial field”; SLP activists seemed to have then begun to work in the SA Labor Party. The United Socialist Party fell apart, and the Voice of Labor, citing apathy and financial problems, closed in December 1912.
In the form of an organized current, then, syndicalism was simply unable to plan, launch, or lead the 1913 and 1914 general strikes. Nonetheless, syndicalist ideas and slogans had “a considerable currency in labor circles” at this time. This was shown, for instance, by speeches that described the “Trades Hall” as “the government”, or suggested “it might be necessary for the strikers to take over the mines and work them themselves”, or called on workers to “have a general strike, and have a revolution”. Such views also found expression in The Strike Herald, produced in 1913 (and revived briefly in 1914) by Crawford and Fitzgerald, both of whom were very prominent in the 1913 riots.
Moreover, the two general strikes plus the war issue re-energized existing anarchists and syndicalists, radicalized new activists, and evoked a widespread interest in radical ideas. There was, in the first instance, an outpouring of new materials, like the De Leonist tract entitled The Great Rand Strike: July, 1913. This drew “lessons” of “service to the proletariat”. As an example of radicalization, an instructive case is provided by George Mason, a carpenter on the mines. Starting as a fairly orthodox SA Labor Party figure, he took the dramatic step of addressing African workers in 1913, when he called on them to strike as well; in 1914, he was deported; by the time public pressure forced the state to allow the deportees to return, he was becoming a staunch syndicalist. As for popular interest in the left, it may be noted that SDF could attract thousands to anti-war rallies, with left influence seen as sufficiently serious that anti-war activists like Harrison were arrested for anti-war literature.
These developments provided the energy for the rise of the ISL in September 1915. Initial membership drew heavily on syndicalist veterans like Dunbar, Jock Campbell and Tyler. A large component was also provided by the anti-war SA Labor Party activists, like Mason, Andrews, Bunting and Ivon Jones, all radicalized by the 1913–1914 strikes. For Bunting, for instance, the 1913 general strike was the “first act of South Africa’s working class revolution, whose end is not yet”.
The new ISL soon operated across the country (bar Cape Town, in deference to the SDF), and rapidly established itself as the largest left political group prior to the CPSA. Its weekly paper, The International, remains the most impressive of the pre-CPSA periodicals, but was only part of the ISL’s large-scale distribution of local and imported papers, tracts and books. The ISL was formed at an auspicious time— just ahead of a huge wave of class struggles starting in 1917. There were 199 officially recorded strikes from 1906 to 1920: 68 took place between 1916 and 1920, with 175,664 workers were on strike from 1916 to 1922; union membership surged from 9,178 in 1914, to 40,000 in 1917, to more than 135,000 in 1920. A particularly important development in this upsurge was the large-scale entry of people of color into unions outside of the Cape. This was pioneered by bodies like the Industrial Workers of Africa, and exemplified by the dramatic rise of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) in the 1920s.
The ISL is usually presented by the Communist school as fervently Marxist, with its best elements comprising the core of the protoBolsheviks; at most, the Communist school suggests, there was a syndicalist minority in ISL ranks, successfully opposed by the Marxist leadership. The problem with such views is that even a cursory examination of the sources demonstrates that the ISL was an unambiguously syndicalist formation in the IWW tradition. It resolved at its first congress “That we encourage the organization of the workers on industrial or class lines, irrespective of race, color or creed, as the most effective means of providing the necessary force for the emancipation of the workers”.
It was the ISL, above all, that developed the vision and practice of the integrated revolutionary One Big Union as the combined weapon for national liberation and class struggle. The ISL was scathingly critical of white craft unions (and the SA Labor Party) for their “craft scabbery” against one other, and for their “complete oblivion to the sufferings of the lower paid” and “unemployed white workers, mainly women” and “intolerant” attitude “towards the native wage slave”. Betraying workers’ solidarity and class struggle, they disgraced themselves with no-strike pledges for modest wages, “scabbing on Judas”, who at least “demanded thirty pieces” of silver for his treachery. Theirs was a “scab unionism” that pursued sectional privileges for “labor fakers” (as the ISL called the union leaders) and aspiring “labor aristocrats”, at the expense of the larger working class.
The craft unions’ disgrace was compounded by their failure to recognize the rise of the giant corporations and trusts, against which they had “no earthly hope” of standing, especially in the face of mechanization and skill dilution. This new era required industrial unions, united in One Big Union and embracing all workers. Racial prejudice was against the interests of the whole working class—whether white, black, skilled, unskilled, employed, or unemployed—and the tool of “imperialist notions and alarums”.
The instruments of national oppression were means to strengthen the ruling class, as “cheap, helpless and unorganized” African labor ensured “employers generally and particularly industrial employers, that most coveted plum of modern Imperialism, plentiful cheap labor”. The “laws and regulations” which “degrade the native workers to the level of serfs and herded cattle”—including the “denial of civil liberty and political rights”—existed “for the express uses of Capital”, as “weapons ... to be used against all the workers”. Thus, “segregation is a policy of capitalism, not of the labor movement”. The policy of White Laborism was foolish as well as immoral, as explained repeatedly to white workers: “Make no mistake, your puny breakwater—the color bar” cannot hold back the “big colored Industrial Army coming in on the tide of their evolution ... demanding that place in the sun to which every single human on this earth is rightfully entitled”.
What was required was a “new movement” that would “recognize no bounds of craft, no exclusions of color”. This would organize among the unskilled, especially the Africans, paying heed to “the cries of the most despairing and the claims of the most enslaved” workers.
Among its tasks would be “the abolition of all forms of native indenture, compound and passport systems; and the lifting of the native worker to the political and industrial status of the white”: “These tyrant laws must be swept away”, the ISL declared in laying out its radical program. Contrary to the literature’s tendency to treat such race radicalism as a minority position in the organization (supposedly identified with figures like Bunting and Ivon Jones, who had to struggle for the “recognition of the black worker” against the “mass” of ISL members) it formed the very heart of official ISL policy, program and propaganda.
As for strategy, the ISL championed the view that “the Industrial Union” was “the root of all the activities of Labor, whether political, social or otherwise”. Specifically, discriminatory laws had to be “repealed by the strength of Trade Unionism”, expressed in its most advanced form, the One Big Union:
Once organized, these workers can bust-up any tyrannical law. Unorganized, these laws are iron bands. Organize industrially, they become worth no more than the paper rags they are written on.
Such positions were hardly the hallmark of an organization that, as the Communist school claimed, viewed national oppression as “not really very worthy of consideration”, let alone of one that purportedly embraced segregation. On the contrary, the ISL waged a continual ideological struggle against racial discrimination, arguing that “The whole of the fight against capitalism is a fight with the prejudices and capitalist-engendered aversions of the workers”. It systematically critiqued the doctrines of scientific racism as “pure poppycock”, stressing that science showed that “all the fundamental phenomena and capabilities of man are rooted in ... humanity which is Black, White and Brown”.
The ISL’s position was nonetheless very much at odds with the twostage program elaborated by the CPSA and SACP from 1928. It doubted, in the first place, that African nationalists had a program that could genuinely emancipate the black masses. Like “Proletarian” on the APO, the ISL viewed the SANNC as basically the party of “native attorneys and parsons” and the “native property owner”, with interests “completely alien to the great mass of the Native proletariat”. Moreover, these “Labor fakirs of Black South Africa” hesitated to “give attention to the one weapon the ruling class fear—the organization of the native workers”. (The APO and SANNC were certainly moderate at this time: supporting the war effort and the repression of white strikers in 1913 and 1914, they occupied themselves largely with sending polite petitions for minor reforms to the British Crown).
Besides, the ISL argued, the national oppression of workers of color was largely rooted in capitalism, meaning that national liberation under capitalism was unlikely. Moreover, these workers were also oppressed by class, as workers, meaning that their full emancipation from poverty and powerlessness would not be achieved even within the best possible nonracial capitalist order; the color of the capitalists much change, but class exploitation and cheap labor would not.
A two-stage solution was, in short, was neither required nor to be desired: the One Big Union could simultaneously address the national and social questions, and provide the class power at the point of the production that made a thorough, and revolutionary, solution possible.
The ISL aimed to reform the white unions, while taking the lead in organizing among people of color, “the great mass of the proletariat”, “black, and therefore disenfranchized and socially outcast”. At times it ran in elections, usually with abysmal results, seeing the “white political field” as a “fine opportunity of forcing the issue” of “solidarity with the native workers”, and “an echo of this propaganda reaches the native workers as well”.
ISL union leaders and activists, like Andrews of the ASE, sought to reform the white unions into syndicalist bodies. In mid-1916, several unions formed the BWIU, with a syndicalist-influenced platform: it aimed to organize industrially, and cultivate “sufficient knowledge and power to enable the Union ultimately to control effectively the Building Industry”. ISL militant Tyler was its provisional secretary, and subsequently, its secretary-general and organizer. Still, the International worried, “at the risk of being thought hypercritics”, whether the union would admit “colored fellow workers”— correctly, as it turned out, for many BWIU locals were segregationist.
In August 1917, the ISL hosted a conference “to discuss ways and means of urging the workers to unite and organize industrially ... and eventually to take over the control of the industry”. It attracted fortyfive people—remarkably, including three Africans—and established a multi-racial Manifesto Committee, later renamed the Solidarity Committee.
The Committee’s manifesto, distributed at the December 1917 SAIF congress, attacked the existing unions for “their narrow craft vanity, their still narrower color prejudice, their exclusive benefit funds, their compromising with the robber system, their friendly agreements with their masters to the neglect of the bottom toiler, their scabbery on the unskilled and one another”. They were a “delusion and a snare”, and served “only the interests of the Capitalists”, and had to be superseded by interracial and revolutionary industrial unions, linked up in one National Industrial Union. This “one Industrial Union will become the
Parliament of Labor and form an integral part of the International Industrial Republic”. Supporters of this project were invited to attend a conference in Easter 1918, but only members of the International Socialist League and the Industrial Workers of Africa (of which, see below) were present at the event.
An alternative means to contest the established unions was suggested by the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement in Britain. This was essentially an independent rank-and-file movement that overlapped with the existing unions, but was willing to defy the union leaders in order to wage militant class struggle: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them”. It was basically a form of syndicalism, which aimed at “control of the workshop, control of the Industry ... and ... Industrial Democracy”, via one “great Industrial Union of the Working Class”. This was also shown by its close ties with the British SLP ad the American IWW, including an arrangement for the interchange of membership cards with the latter.
Andrews, as the ISL’s most senior unionist, had been sent abroad in 1917 as delegate to several international socialist and labor conferences. In Britain, he addressed the Clyde Workers Committee, where he “reminded the British workers of the struggle in South Africa, and the task of liberating the Native peoples there and elsewhere in the Empire”. Meanwhile, the Committee excited Andrews’ “particular admiration”, and convinced him of the need to “organize the South African workers on similar lines”. Upon his return he was hired by the ISL as a full-time organizer, in part in order to promote a local workers’ committee movement. Andrews had some success in Witwatersrand engineering, rail and mines, but disappointingly, many of the local “Works Committees” thus established were not particularly radical. There was one critical exception, the Council of Action based on the mines, of which more below.
The ISL’s positions were frankly not very popular among white workers at this time. When it ran in elections, it was trounced by the other parties, and always lost its deposit. Its weekly public meetings in Johannesburg—held at the Market Square and at the City Hall steps— faced increasing mob violence from thugs like the Comrades of the Great War, a war veterans’ group. ISL activists faced a series of arrests and trials, many of which were overtly aimed at suppressing its propaganda. The white unions distanced themselves from the organization, while recruits from the SA Labor Party soon left over the “revolutionary platform regarding the native workers”.
In 1917, the ISL was evicted from its offices in Trades Hall, the main union house, after it refused to accept a management order barring Africans from ISL facilities. It moved to Neppe’s Buildings in Fox street, owned by a Jewish supporter, where it continued to produce the International, sell radical literature, house a radical library, run Socialist Sunday Schools, and hold meetings.
Immigrant Jews like Neppe played an increasingly important role, with a large and active (and fiercely anti-Zionist) “Yiddish-Speaking Branch” of the ISL formed in August 1917. This produced ISL materials in Yiddish, organized meetings in the multi-racial slums of Johannesburg where most of these immigrants lived, and ran a library and reading room in the Palmerston Hotel. It established contacts in South West Africa, raised money for strikes, and played a key role in the acquisition of an ISL printing press in 1919. Perhaps the most famous of the new recruits was Solly Sachs, a first-generation Latvian immigrant who led the Reef Shop Assistants union, and later played a prominent role in the CPSA.
By this stage, the ISL had taken a leaf from the SDF book, and was consciously cultivating links with people of color, reasoning that “an internationalism which does not concede the fullest rights which the native working-class is capable of claiming will be a sham”. It established its policy “as one of solidarity with Africans as fellow workers in common struggle”. By 1918, had recruited a range of African, Colored and Indian members, and developed a record of working alongside radicals in the SANNC and APO.
An early recruit was T.W. Thibedi, an African schoolteacher who joined the International Socialist League after hearing a talk by Bunting in Johannesburg. A brilliant man with a “genius at getting people together, whether workers in a particular industry, women, location residents, or whatever was needed at the moment”, he had connections with the SANNC and lived in the Johannesburg slums in the 1910s. Thibedi was in later years a leader of the Federation of Non-European Trade Unions in the late 1920s, and a founder of the first African miners’ union in the 1930s.
In February 1916, an ISL meeting in Johannesburg protested the discriminatory 1913 Land Act, the “first coming together in the Transvaal of white socialists and the African National Congress”. It hosted the SANNC’s Robert Grendon at a meeting “with a large number of natives”, where (to “boisterous approval”) it was declared that the unions’ color bar must go. Another talk condemned the “barbarities to which the Indians in Natal were treated”.
In 1917, the ISL held a public protest against the Native Affairs Administration Bill, which subjected Africans to rule by decree of the Governor-General. The meeting was “an historic occasion as socialists demonstrated for the first time on the Rand against racial legislation that did not directly affect whites”. Then SANNC speakers shared the platform at the ISL’s 1917 May Day event, which was disrupted by white thugs—such attacks on ISL were now becoming a regular event. In 1918, the ISL’s May Day celebrations took place in Ferreirastown, a mainly Colored area, the first time May Day in the Transvaal was “directed to non-European workers”.
Having committed themselves publicly to the formation of unions among people of color, neglected by the existing unions, the ISL launched an Indian Workers’ Industrial Union “on the lines of the IWW” in Durban in March 1917. This drew in workers in catering, on the docks and in laundry, printing, and tobacco, and linked up with Indian colliers and farm workers. In conjunction with the local ISL, the union ran study classes—SLP materials featuring prominently—and held open air meetings where the “the Indian Workers Choir entertained the crowds by singing the Red Flag, the International and many IWW songs”.
This was one of the very first Indian workers’ unions in Durban— possibly the first. It was initiated by Gordon Lee, a veteran white IWW organizer, and later the chair of the Durban ISL. The ISL, however, stressed the importance of the union’s members electing a committee from their own ranks, which helped avoid paternalism as well as helped develop cadre among people of color. By August 1917, the union was being run by Sigamoney, R.K. Moodley and one Ramsamy, all of whom had a “good ... grip on the class struggle”; they were all recruited to the ISL.
Sigamoney was “a committed socialist and a leading member of the ISL, and received fraternal support from trade-unionists and members of the same organization”. Born in Durban, he was a school teacher; he now became the most prominent Indian union leader and anti-capitalist in the city.  In October 1917, for example, Sigamoney chaired a public debate on the use of elections, part of an ISL-initiated series to draw in local Coloreds and Indians; he was a featured speaker at the ISL’s January 1918 annual congress.
A few months later, the ISL called a meeting at Neppe’s Buildings to “discuss matters of common interest between white and native workers”. This launched a weekly night school for Africans, focusing on political economy and the necessity of the One Big Union, with the classes run by white ISL members. Sessions attracted around thirty regular students, mainly from the downtown Johannesburg slums, as well as the nearby mines of Village Deep and Crown. Bunting, Dunbar and Gibson were prominent lecturers, stressing the ISL wanted to “make the natives who are the working-class of South Africa be organized and have rights as a white man”, and desired that “all the workers black and white ... come together in a union and be organized together and fight against the capitalists and take them down from their ruling place”.
In September 1917, the classes were transformed into the Industrial Workers of Africa, explicitly modeled on the IWW. “If we strike for everything”, Dunbar commented, “we can get everything ... If we can only spread the matter far and wide among the natives, we can easily unite”.
As with the Durban initiative, the union was coordinated by a committee elected by the membership, and again, the key figures were recruited into the ISL. Besides Thibedi, African union leaders in the Industrial Workers of Africa included Ferd Cetiwe, educated at Qumbu in the Eastern Cape, who worked in Johannesburg as a picture framer’s assistant. Cetiwe embraced ISL doctrines, and urged the union to “preach our gospel”: organize and “abolish the Capitalist-System”. He worked closely with Hamilton Kraai, an ISL member educated at Peddie in the Eastern Cape, then working in Johannesburg as a foreman and a deliveryman. Union literature in African languages like seSotho and isiZulu circulated across the Witwatersrand, including the compounds, and even moved with migrants to rural Rustenburg, Heilbron, and Cala.
The Industrial Workers of Africa and the ISL also held discussions with the SANNC and APO. Sometimes this had an influence on the nationalists, as when Transvaal APO leader and unionist Talbot Williams wrote an IWW-style pamphlet on The Burning Question of Labor for Colored workers; this was published in APO and ISL editions. Relations with the SANNC in Johannesburg were initially tense, some black syndicalists viewing the moderate nationalist body as representing “the men who organize rich and high people who are the men who suck our blood and sell us”.
However, the Transvaal SANNC was undergoing a period of radicalization at the time, with the emergence of a radical wing opposed to the moderate leadership. This wing was happy to work with— indeed, overlapped with—the Industrial Workers of Africa and ISL, with unionists like Cetiwe and Kraai playing a role in all three bodies. Moderate SANNC leaders therefore deplored the lamentable “spread among our people of the Johannesburg Socialists’ propaganda”, and worried that “Socialism of the worst caliber is claiming our people”.
This was certainly demonstrated by the attempted African general strike of the July 1918. Earlier that year, 152 African municipal workers were sentenced to hard labor for striking, thereby breaching their contracts, which inflamed black Johannesburg. The SANNC, Industrial Workers of Africa and the ISL called a series of mass protests, attracting around a thousand people, sometimes more. A joint action committee of all three bodies was formed, comprising the syndicalists along with sympathetic SANNC activists. After some planning, it proposed, to great acclaim by African crowds, a general strike on the Witwatersrand for the release of the sentenced workers, and a shilling-a-day pay rise for African workers. The resolution was carried despite the opposition of SANNC moderates, who were shouted down by the crowd. The ISL’s T.P. Tinker proclaimed: “The strike was not for one shilling a day but for Africa which they deserved”.
The strike was canceled at the last minute, although several thousand African miners came out anyway at three mines. Eight people were then arrested for incitement to public violence. Five were ISL members (Bunting, Cetiwe, H.C. Hanscombe, Kraai and Tinker), and a sixth was a member of both the Industrial Workers of Africa and the SANNC (J.D. Ngojo). The remaining two were the SANNC’s Thomas L. Mvabaza and Daniel Letanka, who had promoted the Industrial Workers of Africa and the strike movement in the SANNC paper Abantu-Batho (“The People”). The arrestees were, in short, hardly the gallery of “Congress leaders” portrayed in some works, since what they shared was a connection with the syndicalist movement.
This was reputedly “the first time in South Africa” that “members of the European and Native races, in common cause united, were arrested and charged together for their political activities”. The case collapsed, Cetiwe, Kraai and Hanscombe lost their jobs, and the Industrial Workers of Africa suffered a blow. It was, however, soon reorganized by Thibedi with a “gratifyingly large attendance”. Meanwhile, in March 1919, Cetiwe and Kraai played a leading role in a civil disobedience campaign against the pass laws, initiated by SANNC radicals. As Cetiwe said,
These passes are main chains, enchaining us from all our rights. These passes are the chains chaining us in our employers’ yards, so that we cannot go about and see what we can do for ourselves ... It is the very same with a dog ...
The campaign led to nearly 700 arrests, and Bunting—who was acting on behalf of many defendants—was assaulted by white hooligans near the courthouse.
In 1919, the ISL noted in Kimberley a “great awakening of industrial solidarity among the Colored workers ... a large portion of the community here”, and dispatched an organizer from Johannesburg, the Jewish tailor Sam Barlin. Kimberley, like the Witwatersrand, operated a compound system for African miners, but the major part of its population was Colored and white. In sharp contrast to the booming gold mining towns and port cities, Kimberley declined rapidly in the new century: in 1911, its population stood at 20,953 whites, and 43,401 people of other races; by 1914, these figures had fallen to 14,888 and 25,755 respectively, and this trend continued into the 1930s.
Barlin set up ISL offices adjacent to those of the SANNC and APO, and helped establish two syndicalist unions. One was the Clothing Workers’ Industrial Union, based among the several hundred local tailors—mainly Coloreds, with a smattering of Jews and Indians. Once again, the union was run by an elected committee, and once again, the leading figures were recruited to the ISL. Twenty-seven members, all Coloreds, joined the ISL, mostly from the big workshops of Myer Gordon, Reid and Brown. The most important recruit was Gomas, an apprentice tailor at Gordon’s, who later also played a key role in the CPSA.
Within a few months, the Clothing Workers’ Industrial Union secured shopsteward recognition, the closed shop and wage increases, and spread to Johannesburg, and Durban. It waged, meanwhile, a successful strike to enforce its agreement with employers. Barlin also helped form a Horse Drivers’ Union in Kimberley, based among the Coloreds who dominated the trade; most worked for the municipality and railways, often in refuse removal. These workers were not included in the recently formed Municipal Employes Association, representing whites. This union also provided ISL recruits, and was headed by local activists K.C. Fredericks and Jan C. Smuts. It struck towards the end of 1919 for a 25 percent wage increase, winning after two tough weeks.
Meanwhile, Cetiwe and Kraai left for the segregated African ghetto, Ndabeni, in Cape Town. They aimed to organize the Industrial Workers of Africa on the docks: these employed the largest single workforce in the city, as well as the majority of Africans. The union’s first Cape Town meeting was held on 10th July 1919 in cooperation with the newly formed IndSL, in District Six. It was attended by “200 native and colored”, and the “speeches appeared to be the reverse of pacific”. With “fresh members” enrolled, union offices were set up in Francis Street.
The IndSL, for its part, was a syndicalist breakaway from the SDF in May 1918: its members viewed the SDF as “too academic”. It was initially driven by younger men, like C. Frank Glass, an English tailor, and A.Z. Berman, a Russian Jew, school teacher and businessman. The IndSL program was the “abolition of the wage system and the establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth based on the principle of self-governing industries, in which the workers will work and control the instruments of production, distribution and exchange for the benefit of the entire community”. Its strategy was not “broadly” Marxist, but centered on “building up that efficient organization commonly known as the One Big Union”. Elections were seen as useless, even for propaganda. In any event the “big masses of the proletariat, natives and a big section of colored have no vote at all”.
The IndSL was strongly orientated towards workers of color, with key militant Manuel Lopes stating bluntly that “propaganda among the colored and native workers is the work that counts”. Craft unions and color bars played into the ruling class’ policy of “divide and rule”, based on irrational “patriotism, racial pride and nationalism”. Real socialism “claims for every man, women or child, white or colored, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. It advocated the “solidarity of labor irrespective of color or race”. Like the ISL, its initial core consisted of white militants, but this too would change.
Its first headquarters were in Ayre Street, District Six, with a venue that could seat 600. Detectives reported “considerable numbers of colored and native people” attending its functions, “the movement ... growing in numbers and importance”. The IndSL was also in regular contact with visiting IWW sailors, who “taught the League to sing”.
Later the IndSL moved to better facilities in Plein street in central Cape Town, where its new Socialist Hall was opened in early 1919 to a crowd of “between 300 and 400 persons”, despite heavy rain. The audience was “chiefly Russian Jews and colored”; speakers included the fiery S.H. Davidoff (IndSL), Colored unionists linked to the IndSL like Brown, M.A. Gamiet and B. Kies, Harrison (SDF) and Boydell (SA Labor Party). Open air events by the SDF and the League often attracted over 400 people at this time, although the SDF was faring badly in the competition with the new body.
Between May 1919 and May 1920, the IndSL held an amazing 135 outdoor meetings and 32 indoor lectures, as well as innumerable “socials, lectures etc.”. It was soon able to get “the services of a few colored and Malay comrades in our propaganda”. Besides this, the IndSL ran a library, study groups, Socialist Sunday Schools and a Young Socialist Society, and published a monthly called The Bolshevik.
In 1918, the Industrial Socialist League formed a syndicalist union among the African and Colored workers of the food processing factories in downtown Cape Town, like Hills factory and Buchanan’s. The first meeting was held 10 September at its headquarters, and attended by 30 workers who resolved to “form an Industrial Union” and do “everything in its power to assure its success”. Berman was the organizing secretary, and Kies the chair, of the new Sweets and Jam Workers’ Industrial Union, and the IndSL provided funds.
Many African workers also joined, so the second meeting saw a “Com. Mpanpeni” acting as an interpreter, while “Com. Nodzandza” was elected to the largely Colored executive. IndSL Meetings in the factory district attracted the ire of employers, with at least one meeting surrounded and stopped by a large police presence. Meanwhile, the IndSL busied itself in the Cape Federation of Labor, where it had radical resolutions—like support for the Soviet Republic, and the “formation of Industrial Unions out of the existing Trade Unions”— passed at the 1920 and 1921 congresses, although these were never implemented.
In December 1919 the IndSL worked closely with the Industrial Workers of Africa, which was embroiled in a major strike on the docks. The strike followed a joint meeting of the Industrial Workers of Africa, the ICU and the Cape Native Congress in Ndabeni, attended by 800 and chaired by Kraai. It was Cetiwe who proposed the strike, and it was Cetiwe who, in the name of the Industrial Workers of Africa, sent the municipality the ultimatum: 10 shillings a day for unskilled workers, or strike action.
Initially supported by the Cape Federation of Labor and NURHAS, the strike really rested on the Industrial Workers of Africa and the ICU, which held daily mass assemblies on the Grand Parade in the mornings, followed by evening meetings on Adderley Street. Police and soldiers began to evict strikers from the Docks Location, another African ghetto, on Christmas Eve, the unions squabbled, and the strike disintegrated. The two unions later held a joint meeting of 300 on the Grand Parade in March 1920.
Cetiwe and Kraai had tried to push the SANNC towards a policy of militant strike action at its annual congress in 1918, and repeated the performance at the congress of 1920. They were defeated, but the SANNC did resolve to support a general labor conference in Bloemfontein that year. The meeting drew in emerging unions from across the country, including the ICU and Industrial Workers of Africa, which resolved to merge under the ICU banner into “one great union of skilled and unskilled workers of South Africa, south of the Zambesi”. Ultimately Clements Kadalie, the leader of the original ICU, established himself as the key ICU leader.
The reference to “one great union” was no mere rhetorical flourish: the ICU repeatedly invoked the vision of “abolishing the capitalist class” through one big strike,  devised a constitution based on that of the IWW, and drew the ire of the CPSA for its “pronounced anarcho-syndicalist tendencies”. It was far too eclectic, in fact, to be truly called syndicalist—Garveyism was a major influence, for example— but syndicalism was certainly part of its heady ideological mix. In the 1920s, the ICU would explode across the country with over 100,000 members, mainly African, at its height. Moreover, the ICU also spread into neighboring colonies, spreading elements of syndicalism even further afield.
In the meantime, the ISL, SDF, IndSL and several other smaller groups would come together to launch the CPSA, supplying most of its key leaders; the International became the CPSA paper, and the ISL Press the CPSA press. Not surprisingly, even an official Party history concedes, “syndicalist concepts remained within the Communist Party for many years after its foundation; echoes of their approach and phraseology appear in many documents and journals”. This lingering syndicalism was largely excised during the New Line period, which marked, in this sense, a major rupture in the party’s history.
The third echo of syndicalism in the 1920s was provided by the Council of Action, identified with Percy Fisher, Ernie Shaw and H. Spendiff, “desperate men—men who would stop at nothing”. The Council advocated the formation of “revolutionary industrial units” and “a Republic of Industrial Workers”, and briefly took control of the Rand Revolt, opposing racial clashes and challenging the state power. Fisher and Shaw died, apparent suicides, as troops stormed the insurrection’s headquarters in downtown Johannesburg.
This chapter has demonstrated that anarchism and syndicalism in South Africa consistently sought to address the national question. The anarchist and syndicalist movement was multiracial in composition, as well as internationalist in outlook, and was characterized throughout by a principled and distinctive opposition to racial discrimination and prejudice, with a commitment to interracial labor organizing and working class unity. Racial discrimination was lambasted as an outright evil, and racial prejudice as a profound threat to the working class. In its most developed form, the libertarians’ approach envisaged One Big Union as the means of constituting a common society based on class solidarity. This would be an Industrial Republic, not a nationstate, and form part of a universal human community, the International Industrial Republic.
This vision has been obscured by the misrepresentations of the preCPSA left practiced by the influential Communist school of labor and left history. It is fundamentally at odds with the two-stage strategy identified with the CPSA and SACP from 1928 onwards, which envisages the establishment of an independent, democratic and capitalist republic as a step towards a socialist order. This anarchist/syndicalist strategy assumes the necessity and desirability of delinking anti-colonial and class struggles, and tends to conflate national liberation with nationalism. From this perspective, it is perhaps unthinkable to Communist school writers that the pre-CPSA left may have had a sophisticated, perhaps even a viable, approach to the national question. If this is conceded, and if nationalism is therefore reduced to but one current in national liberation struggles, then much of the rationale for a two-stage theory falls away.
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Soka University of America
Recent works on the formation of radical politics in China have revealed the usefulness of regional perspectives on, and the importance of transnational approaches to, the history of modern East Asian history. Unlike earlier studies of regionalism in East Asia, which focused on the cultural arena, these underline the importance of direct and indirect interactions among radicals circulating in the area and, as a result, the role of transnationalism in the formation of national discourses. Drawing upon these works, I have argued elsewhere for the transnational and regional aspects of the Korean anarchist press published in China and Japan in the 1920s and 30s, raising issues that this chapter develops further.
In this chapter, I examine the ways in which Korean radicals in China and Japan were exposed to, and subsequently accepted, anarchism in order to highlight the role of, and tension between, national consciousness and transnational concerns in their conversion to anarchism. I wish to demonstrate the complex relationship between nationalism and anarchism in a colonial situation like Korea, annexed by Japan in 1910. This relationship calls into question a flawed assessment of Korean anarchism that basically views it as an “aberration” from the anarchism developed in Europe on the grounds that some Korean anarchists supported the idea of establishing a national government. Korean anarchism, according to this understanding, abandoned “the basic principles in anarchism” and finally “reduced ‘anarchism’ to a liberal concept” and to nationalism.
On the contrary, I suggest the need for a dialectical and nuanced understanding of Korean anarchism: Korean radicals read anarchism with their immediate nationalist goal of independence in mind, and, conversely, articulated that goal with their understanding of anarchism. This demonstrates that, in the colonial context, nationalism played a significant role in the rise and spread of anarchism among Korean radicals, but does not suggest, by any means, that Korean anarchism can be reduced to nationalism. In general, the activities of Korean anarchists in the Korean peninsula, as well as those of the Korean anarchists in China and Japan, were focused not merely on Korea’s independence, but also on the establishment of an anarchist society.
I also examine the activities and projects that Korean anarchists jointly planned and conducted with their counterparts in China and Japan in order to demonstrate the important role of transnationalism in shaping the rise and character of Korean anarchism. I argue that there were key transnational linkages in the history of Korean anarchism, which are usually missing from (or at best are marginalized in) Korean nationalist accounts of the history of the movement.
My discussion is limited to the Korean anarchists in China and Japan before 1945. This is not because Korean anarchism within the Korean peninsular itself was of no importance, but rather because anarchism was first introduced to, and accepted by, Korean radicals and students in China and Japan; it only then spread into Korea. This explains why interactions with other anarchists in China and Japan were crucial to the rise of Korean anarchism, both abroad and in Korea.
Anarchist activities within the Korean peninsula were also closely tied to the activities of Korean anarchists based in China and Japan. There were many attempts within Korea to form anarchist organizations and disseminate anarchist ideas by those returning from abroad, mostly from Japan. These always met prompt and brutal suppression at their inception from the Japanese colonial police. As a result, while many anarchist organizations were formed throughout Korea in the 1920s, all were short-lived. The situation became even harsher in the 1930s once Japan invaded China. In this situation, anarchists in Korea generally faced the choice of going underground, or being arrested under Japan’s wartime repression of “dangerous ideas”. Even so, attempts to publish anarchist materials continued.
The history of Korean anarchism before 1945 has mainly been examined either in the context of the rise of communism in Korea, or that of the 1945 “victory of Korean nationalism” over Japanese colonialism. Although there has been a growing recognition that anarchism in 20th century Korea had a “historically important role” in the struggle to “move” toward independence, many scholars still view it as an idea “utilized” by nationalists to “terrorize the enemy” by recourse to “terrorist actions”, thus serving the ultimate goal of independence. Korean anarchists were, in other words, supposedly nationalists rather than actual anarchists; Korean anarchism must be nationalist in form and character, according to this dominant line of interpretation.
There is no doubt that independence was the primary, and immediate, goal of Korean anarchists, but it does not mean it was their only, or ultimate, goal. They aimed not just to gain independence through a political movement, but also to achieve a social revolution based on anarchist principles. Moving away from the nationalist analysis of Korean anarchism, therefore, I argue that Korean anarchism was the product of interactions between Korean anarchists and other anarchists in China and Japan. During these interactions, anarchism was introduced to the Koreans from various transnational sources. It was developed not only to meet the immediate, national goal of independence, but also, within the Korean concrete circumstances, to modify, as well as link, the national goal to the cosmopolitan ideals of anarchism, expressed in the notion of social revolution.
In the discussion below, I borrow the concept of “communities of discourse”, formulated by Robert Wuthnow, according to which “a process of mutual influence, adjustment, accommodation” occurs that produces radical culture “as a form of behavior and as the tangible results of that behavior”. Korean communist Kim San (1905–1938), who was an anarchist for a short while in the early 1920s, described Tokyo in 1919 as “the Mecca for students” from “all over the Far East and a refuge for revolutionaries of many kinds”. Similarly, Shanghai appeared to him at the time as “the new center of the nationalist movement where the Korean provisional government was functioning”. In these two locations he “met all kinds of people and was thrown into a maelstrom of conflicting political ideas and discussions”. As Kim San noted, Tokyo, Shanghai and other centers served in the early 20th century as the crucibles within which radical cultures were forged, and in which radical discourses on revolution, colonialism and imperialism were articulated.
These Korean anarchist activities were mainly concentrated in the cities, although as demonstrated below, Quanzhou in Fujian Province in China was also a key transitional concentration point for East Asian anarchist experiments in middle and late 1920s. Korean radicals in these locations were introduced to, and drawn to, anarchism through their associations with their counterparts in China and Japan, as well as their readings of the anarchist works, both original and in translation, available in China and Japan. The significance of these transnational sources is their influence upon, and inspiration for, Korean radicals which, in turn, somewhat ironically helped them to envisage their national goal through transnational lenses. The Korean anarchists’ cooperation with their counterparts elsewhere also sheds light on how they came to share concerns and languages pertinent to the problems of the world with other anarchists, and at the same time on how they came to select from these that which they thought most essential to the Korean independence struggle.
In this process of selection, Korean anarchists were able to articulate their national goal with the help of anarchism, and, conversely, understand anarchism through their national circumstances. In doing so, they faced a tension between their national goal of independence, and their transnational concerns and their vision of international social revolution, leading them to attempt to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory projects. I posit that a process of influence, inspiration, adjustment, and accommodation occurred during the course of this interaction, selection and articulation in order to address national goals in a colonial context. At the same time, there was obviously a common consciousness among Korean and other Asian anarchists, arising from their interaction, regarding their shared fate under imperialism, including colonialism, and capitalism, and regarding their common vision of an anarchist solution. This enabled joint activity to realize both the shared anarchist vision, and the specific national goal of the Koreans.
The case of Korean anarchism, I think, reveals the visible influence and inspiration of its counterparts in China and Japan in shaping its direction and character. For example, the ideas of social revolution, of combining physical and mental labor, of individual freedom and spontaneity, and of rural autonomy arose from Korean anarchists’ interactions before 1945 with their counterparts. The Quanzhou case (below) exemplifies the leading role that Korean anarchists sometimes took in Chinese and East Asian anarchist projects. The experiences gained through such cooperation were also significant to the development, in ensuing years, of common outlooks and solutions. Some of these ideals survived in Korean anarchism after 1945 in similar, if not the same, forms. In short, interactions among East Asian anarchists, in transnational radical communities of discourse and activity, were, I posit, integral to the articulation of the discourse and language they produced on anti-imperialism, national liberation, independence, national development, revolution and freedom.
While I underline the influence and inspiration that Korean anarchists received from their counterparts in China and Japan, it does not follow that Korean anarchism must be understood only in the context of Chinese and Japanese anarchism. Rather, the point is to emphasize that the history of Korean anarchism is deeply entangled with that of Chinese and Japanese anarchism, and vise versa, and therefore, to argue for the utility of using a regional perspective and examination of transnational linkages in order to understand the history of anarchism in Korea.
Anarchism had been introduced to Koreans long before the March First Movement of 1919, a nation-wide massive demonstration against Japanese colonial rule in Korea. However, it was only after the 1919 movement that Korean radicals and students in China and Japan began to seriously consider anarchism as an idea for Korea’s independence. Their contacts and associations with Chinese and Japanese anarchists and radicals and their organizations were crucial in having them accept anarchism. Also important were their readings of the anarchist writings available at the time.
In fact, the anarchist literature available in Chinese translation by 1920 (to which Korean radicals in China probably subscribed) was “unmatched in scope and comprehensiveness by any other social and political philosophies of European origin”. Japanese writings and translations of socialism and anarchism were abundant and readily available to Korean radicals and students in both Korea and Japan. Kim San recalled that:
From 1919 to 1923 Korean students were far in advance of [the] Chinese in social thinking, partly because of our more pressing need for revolution and partly because of our closer contacts with Japan, the fountainhead of the radical movement, both anarchist and Marxist, in the Far East at that time. It was from Japanese translations of Marxism that both Koreans and Chinese first became acquainted with this theory.
Upon his release from a colonial Japanese jail in Korea in April 1921, Kim Seongsuk (1898–1969), a Marxist and independence activist, also found that Korean society was “filled with socialist ideas”, which he believed was due to the influence of Japanese books and translations about socialism. Choi Gabryong (1904–?)—who had become an anarchist in Japan, but whose anarchist activities were mostly conducted in Korea itself, leading to his arrest by Japanese police in 1931—was overwhelmed by the number of books on socialism available in Tokyo when he went there in 1924; this is also indicative of Koreans’ access to socialism through Japan. As a matter of fact, socialism became so popular among Koreans that by May 1927 it was the subject of daily conversations among Korean youths: Kim Seongsuk recalled the youths believed that they would be anachronistic if they did not speak of socialism. He also spoke of popularity of anarchism in the early 1920s among Korean radicals:
At that time, books on socialism were almost all translations by Japanese socialists. I read the books by Sakai Toshihiko and Yamakawa Hitoshi. A book among others that still remains in my memory is Yamakawa’s The Apparatus of Capitalism published in 1923.... On the other hands, anarchism was the most popular one among all the isms. I think, all of the leftist ideas were infused in it [anarchism]. For anarchism, I read Kropotkin’s Confession [i.e. Memoirs of a Revolutionist]. This was a very good book for [the understanding of] socialism.
Reading anarchist works was important for Korean radicals’ understanding of anarchism, as well as their conversion to it. We see from the above quote the influence of Japanese translations on the spread of socialism, including anarchism, and the popularity of anarchism, especially the works of Kropotkin. In fact “Peter Kropotkin was the most important anarchist theoretician to have widespread influence in East Asia”, mainly because his mutual aid idea offered an alternative to Social Darwinism.
Kropotkin’s An Appeal to the Young, in particular, was quite influential among Korean radicals. Shin Chae-ho (1880–1936), a prominent Korean anarchist in 1920s China suggested in an essay in Dong’a Ilbo (“East Asian Daily”) on 2 January 1925 that Korean youths should “become baptized by Kropotkin’s An Appeal to the Young”, which, he insisted, was “the right prescription for a disease” they suffered. Yi Yongjun (1905–?) was attracted to anarchism through readings of Ōsugi Sakae’s translations of Kropotkin, among which An Appeal to the Young apparently impressed him deeply. He was a member of two anarchist organizations in early 1930s China: the Alliance of Korean Youths in South China (Namhwa hanin yeonmaeng), and the Federation to Save the Nation through Anti-Japan (Hang’il guguk yeonmaeng), both of which are discussed later. Shin was also absorbed with reading the works of Liu Sifu (1884–1915, known as Shifu), the “soul of Chinese anarchism”, and Kōtoku Shūsui (1871–1911), a leading Japanese anarchist: these, Shin thought, were best for understanding anarchism.
Unsurprisingly, Japanese anarchist Ōsugi Sakae (1885–1923) had a profound influence on Korean radicals, for, as Thomas Stanley has suggested, he had a great impact on “a wider audience”. In the early 1920s, Choi Jungheon (1902–?) and other Korean students in Japan engaged in reading Ōsugi’s works, which convinced him that a labor movement based on anarchist principles was the path to social revolution. Ōsugi’s work, A Mind in Search of Justice (Seigi o matomeru kokoro) remained in the memory of Choi Gabryong, who organized a “reading circle” (dokseo hoe) in Tokyo in 1924, which included this work in its reading list.
Ōsugi’s influence among, and inspiration for, Korean radicals in Japan was not surprising given that Ōsugi himself supported Korea’s independence. He hurrahed (banzai) three times for Korea’s independence at a reception held to welcome Yeo Unhyeong (1888–1947), who came to Japan as an official representative of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai at the invitation of the Japanese authorities; some of the Korean anarchists based in China were associated with that Government.
Korean anarchists were not merely the readers of Chinese and Japanese anarchist works, or of their translations. They had their own anarchist writings as well as Korean translations of works by, for example, Mikhail Bakunin, Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta, and Élisée Reclus, sometimes with annotations. This is an indication of their own participation in the production and reproduction of anarchist discourses and languages.
Although few of these writings and translations have survived, and most are not available today, Korean anarchists’ participation in the (re)production of anarchist discourses and language (and in activities, as well) led to their participation in the production of common radical visions and cultures bent on anarchist principles with other anarchists. Evidently, Korean anarchists were not the initial producers of these discourses and languages: for example, the language of revolution was contributed by the “Paris Chinese anarchists”, while the problem of modernity was wrestled with by the “Tokyo Chinese anarchists”. The point here is the significance of the interaction itself, and the resulting mutual inspiration and influence among East Asian anarchists in the rise of anarchism in East Asia.
This mutual inspiration and influence could be seen at various levels of interaction. Ōsugi’s extreme commitment to individual rebelliousness and liberation led him to claim to believe in “[n]o creed, no ism, no theory” and thus, ironically, to his claimed antipathy against anarchism itself: he wrote in 1918 that “For some reason, I hate anarchism a bit”. This kind of ambivalent attitude toward anarchism may have had an influence on Bak Yeol (1902–1974), whose conversion to anarchism was decisively influenced by Ōsugi (as well as Iwasa Sakutarō, of whom more below): Bak, on trial in the mid-1920s with his Japanese comrade and lover Kaneko Fumiko (1903–26) for an alleged plot against the Japanese throne, stated he was not so much an anarchist as a “nihilist”.
Similarly, the split in the Japanese anarchist movement between the “pure anarchists” represented by Hatta Shūzō (1886–1934), and the anarcho-syndicalists represented by Ishikawa Sanshirō (1876–1956), had a significant impact upon Korean anarchists in Japan, who replicated the split. The Korean anarchists in Korea itself were also under the influence of the trends in Japan. Thus, there emerged a tendency toward anarcho-syndicalism among the Korean anarchists in Korea, while the Korean anarchists in China were mostly critical of anarchosyndicalism, like the “pure anarchists”. The main current in Korean anarchism in Japan gradually shifted in the 1920s to pure anarchocommunism, with its focus on the mutual aid idea. But this does not mean anarcho-syndicalism disappeared from the Korean anarchist movement that operated in Japan. On the contrary, unionization activities among Korean workers in Japan by Korean anarchists continued until the 1930s, as Kim Taeyeob’s (1902–?, discussed below) union activities demonstrate.
Exposed to and accepting anarchism, Korean anarchists prioritized Korea’s independence in their ideas and activities. Many have testified to this aspect of Korean anarchism. Nationalism or at least national sentiments, in other words, was the main force that drew them to anarchism. Yi Hoiyeong (1867–1932), “the pioneer of Korean anarchism”, and active in 1920s China, stated unequivocally in 1925 his motive for becoming an anarchist: “From a contemporary perspective of thoughts, my idea and plan for the realization of Korea’s independence are coincident with those of anarchism”.
Similarly, Jeong Hwaam (1896–1981), a leading Korean anarchist in 1920s and 1930s China, recalls two elements that attracted the Koreans exiled in China, including himself, to anarchism: their resistance to Japanese imperialism in order to secure independence, and their adoration for “communism [sic.]”, with the emphasis on the former. To him, anarchism “sounded good anyway at first” more emotionally than theoretically, but he was particularly attracted to it because of his “instinctive nationalist impulse” to resist Japan, and became convinced that the final goal of the anarchist movement was “independence through anti-Japan”. This suggests that his conversion to anarchism was driven primarily by his national aspiration for independence. Anti-colonialism was integral to the emergence of nationalism in colonies like Korea (and semi-colonies like China as well).
National feeling acted as the initial and decisive force drawing Korean radicals and independence activists in China and Japan towards anarchism. However, they eventually had to face the question of how to deal with the universal messages and transnational concerns of anarchism while still prioritizing their national goal, independence. This question arose particularly as they came to better understand the nature of the contemporary world, leading them to set goals beyond mere independence.
Jeong Hwaam, for instance, recalled how he and other Korean anarchists, such as the Yi brothers—Yi Eulgyu (1894–1972) and Yi Jeonggyu (1877–1984)—and Yu Jamyeong (1894–1985), realized that it was necessary to clarify “the objectives of nation-building” with the use of a “non-theoretical ideology [sic.]” for the independence movement. This kind of realization was probably due to the fact that they read anarchism not only as an idea for achieving independence, but also with reference to the type of new society to be built after independence. Here, concerns going beyond national boundaries and nationalist concerns that arose from their transnational contacts and sources played a role in broadening Korean anarchism beyond the question of independence.
Again, Jeong Hwaam’s case offers a good example. Between late 1924 and early 1925, Jeong saw female Chinese workers maltreated at a British-owned factory in Shanghai. He began to “feel” that the goal of national liberation of all oppressed peoples was the same as the goal of the Korean independence movement. Then his “feeling” developed ultimately into the concrete conclusion that the removal of the social and economic contradictions of capitalism, including excessive work hours and the unequal treatment of workers, was the goal of the anarchist movement. Understanding the social problems and ills of capitalist society, he was finally prompted to actively support the activities of Chinese and Taiwanese anarchists. Thus, the maltreatment of the workers raised questions for Jeong about the plight of all the downtrodden masses in the capitalist system, which in turn helped him raise issues of social justice and economic inequality in both colonial and semi-colonial societies under capitalism. As he became aware of these issues, there generated in his mind a sense of the common fate of (semi-)colonized peoples, from which followed the need to work jointly with other anarchists and workers.
In fact, Yi Hoiyeong had already realized these points, and thus proposed that Korean anarchists participate in the movement of Chinese anarchists, and vise versa, and develop close connections between the two through reciprocal cooperation. Cooperation, of course, might have been of dire necessity—particularly to the Korean anarchists, as expatriates, looking to survive and carry out pro-independence activities in foreign regions. But at the same time, it was seen as necessary for the implementation of shared anarchist ideals after the exposure of the contemporary world, with the social evils of capitalism as well as colonialism. In short, independence was the primary, but certainly not the sole nor the ultimate, goal of Korean anarchists’ discourses and activities.
In this process, Korean anarchists inevitably had to confront the tension between anarchism as a universal idea that, according to Yi Jeonggyu, promised as its ultimate goal a world of “Great Unity” (daedong in Korean, datong in Chinese), i.e. a cosmopolitan world, and their national aspirations to achieve the immediate goal of retaking independence from Japanese imperialism. Anarchist Sim Yongcheol (1914–?) described the tension in the following terms:
Since Korean anarchists were slaves who lost their country, they had to rely with affection on nationalism and patriotism, and thus had difficulties in practice in discerning what their main idea was and what their secondary idea was. The reason [for the difficulties] was due to that their enemy was the only one: Japanese imperialism. My life is one that has drifted along with this kind of contradiction inside.
What we see here is a combination of the universal ideal and the nationalist goal, with which Sim lived, which was indicative of the complex relationship (in Sim’s words, the “contradiction”) in semi-colonial contexts between national consciousness and transnational concerns.
In his memoirs, Kim Gwangju, a member of the Alliance of Korean Youths in South China (see below), also informs us of the “contradiction” experienced by Korean youths, himself among them, in Shanghai in the early 1930s. Kim Gwangju notes that they began to call into question the very existence and meaning of their “motherland” ( joguk), but still had to deal with the “vague” goal of national independence and the issue of their survival there under Japan’s tight surveillance. It is noteworthy that some Korean anarchists based in Japan in the 1930s shared this understanding of the idea of the “motherland”, considering it ruling class propaganda.
Yi Jeonggyu, known in the 1920s as a “forcible anarchist writer”, also described his life as characterized by this tension. However, in his case, he shifted further towards anarchism, which offered a vision of social revolution, rather than simply a political revolution that aimed only at independence. He explains this shift, and the complexity of his life, in the following:
The first half of my life went through [both] a life for struggle and a personal course (yeokjeong) for the independence movement, but then turned towards [a life for] a social thought and a social revolutionary movement. Indeed it was a life as one of the pioneers who were indulged in anarchism, that is, no-government movement (mujeongbu juui undong), which had been viewed in this world, without any good reason, as too extreme.
Thus, the immediate and primary goal of all Korean anarchists was to regain independence from Japan, to which Yi, as well as Kim Gwangju and Sim Yongcheol, devoted themselves. However, as they all recalled, they often began to move gradually beyond the goal of developing a “political” independence movement, towards the realization of anarchist ideals that (particularly in Yi’s case) inevitably embraced the dimensions of a social revolution. Some Korean anarchists based in Japan, like Bak, identified the Koreans in Japan as well as the Japanese masses as part of a “warm hearted humanity” in the same socially “weak group” opposed to the rulers.
The tension or “contradiction” between nationalism and anarchism arose precisely when this kind of transnational connection was made. Korean anarchists, in short, were not preoccupied only with nationalism and independence, but were also concerned with—often even more—with transnational and universal problems and concerns.
While some Korean anarchists inclined towards nationalism alone, others emphasized anarchism. This depended on their location, circumstances and so on, resulting in a seemingly noticeable difference among Korean anarchists regarding their attitude to nationalism. For example, many Korean anarchists in China actively engaged in national struggles against Japan—probably because of the vital joint struggle alongside the Chinese against the Japanese invasion of China—those in Japan were by-and-large critical of the whole nationalist movement, possibly because the immediate target, in their joint activities with the Japanese anarchists, was the Japanese government itself.
Once converted to anarchism, Korean anarchists in Japan started to engage in organizing themselves, as well as participating in various joint activities with their counterparts in Japan. There is no doubt that they shared common ideals and visions with the latter. Likewise, many Japanese anarchists, including Ōsugi, Iwasa, Sakai Toshihiko (1870–1933), and Takatsu Seido (1893–1974), provided sponsorship and support to the Japan-based Korean anarchists’ efforts to set up organizations and undertake actions, besides which they jointly published many anarchist publications.
The Fraternal Society of Koreans ( Joseonin chinmokhoe), the “first anarchism-oriented Korean organization in Japan”, was established in Osaka in 1914. The key role was played by Jeong Taesin, who had been converted to anarchism through his relationship with various Japanese anarchists. The Society held regular meetings with the help and support of the Japanese anarchists.
To take the case of Kim Taeyeob, a prominent anarchist labor activist and organizer in 1920s and 1930s Japan, it was through the “Open Lectures on Labor” that he attended in the early 1920s (organized by Japanese socialists and anarchists) that he learned to identify the national struggle against imperialism with the cause of the labor movement, and, accordingly, developed a class consciousness as well as a national consciousness. Learning from the “Open Lectures”, he soon developed his own two social categories for Korean society: the nation (minjok) and the working people ( geullo daejung). While Kim Taeyeob’s activity was mostly in the Korean labor movement in Japan, in 1926 he also organized a Korean anarchist organization in Japan called Chigasei sha (the “Voice of Self Society”).
The Black Wave Society (Heukdo hoe), the first Korean anarchist organization in Tokyo, was established in November 1921 with sponsorship from Japanese anarchists. The organization had its organ the Black Wave, published in July 1922 in Japanese; Bak Yeol was editor-in-chief and publisher. The journal, eschewing nationalism, promoted a cosmopolitan idea of amalgamating Japan and Korea, and an amalgamated world, which was probably a factor in Kaneko Fumiko, a Japanese nihilist or anarchist, joining the Korean-led organization. The Black Movement Society (Heuksaek undongsa), organized in 1926 by Korean anarchists in Japan such as Choi Gyujong (1895–?), Yi Honggeun (1907–?), Jang Sangjung (1901–1961) and Won Simcahng (1906–1971), regularly held meetings to study the theories of anarchism. Invited speakers for the meetings included Japanese anarchists like Iwasa, Ishikawa, and Mochizuki Katsura (1887–1975), with Hatta Shūzō as the primary lecturer. In fact, many Korean anarchists participated in Japanese anarchists’ activities and subscribed to Japanese anarchist journals including Kokushoku seinen (“Black Youth”), Kōsaku (“Tenant Farming”), and Rōdō Undō (“Labor Movement”).
The Black Movement Society was a registered member of the Japanese Black Youth League (Nihon kokushoku seinen renmei), and, according to Yi Honggeun, attempted to build a communication network among the East Asian anarchists in order to increase their interactions. No concrete evidence survives to validate the existence of the network, but it seems that there was a similar kind of network that did work effectively. Kim Taeyeob, whose anarchist labor movement activities were mainly limited to Tokyo and Osaka in the mid 1920s, was, to his surprise, formally invited to the congress of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (Zhonghua minguo zonggonhui), which took place in Shanghai on May Day 1925. There, Kim Taeyeob met many labor activists from across the world, including Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders like Liu Shaoqi (1898–1969). Kim Taeyeob’s activities in Japan must have been known to the Chinese through some kind of information network.
As the Korean anarchists based in China began to organize themselves, they set two goals—independence and establishing a new society founded upon anarchist ideals and principles—and for both they proposed and actively engaged in joint activities with anarchists in China. One of the earliest cases was the Yi brothers’ association with Chinese Esperantists. According to a Chinese police report for the Beiyang warlord government in Beijing, dated June 5, 1922, the Association for the Study of the World Language (i.e. Esperanto) in China (Shijieyu xuehui) had just held a meeting over tea. The purpose of the meeting was to welcome a Japanese “communist” (sic) and two Koreans, Yi Jeonggyu and Yi Byeonggyu (i.e. Yi Eulgyu). A Chinese representative of the Association delivered a welcoming address, in which he explained to the attendees the current situation of the “Chinese anarchist group” (Zhongguo wuzhengfu dang) in various locations in China. This was followed by a warm response by Yi Jeonggyu. Yi Jeonggyu, thanking the Chinese present, stated that all Koreans wished to recover Korea’s national sovereignty and land, and thus strove for national liberation without any fear of sacrificing themselves. Yi then briefly expressed his hope that youths in China, Japan and Korea could be united in order to move forward. The meeting decided, according to the report, that those present from the three countries would get permission from their respective comrades to look into the possibility of convening a conference for all, at one place.
Another early example was the Black Flag League (Heukgi yeonmaeng). This was organized in October 1924 by Korean and Chinese anarchist students at Beijing Minguo University, with the sponsorship of Chinese anarchists Zhang Ji (1882–1947), Li Shizeng (1881–1973), Wu Zhihui (1865–1953), and Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940). Although not much information about the League survives, the activities of Yu Seo (1905–1980), one of the Korean members, clearly shows joint activity.
Yu was born and bred in Korea but became a Chinese citizen in 1916, where he participated actively in many Chinese anarchist activities. In 1925, he took part in the establishment of the Society of the Masses (Minzhong she). In 1928 he was involved in a key debate between the Young Chinese Anarchist Federation (Xiaonian zhongguo wuzhengfu zhuyi lianmeng) and the Chinese Marxists, where he defended the “literature of the masses” (minzhong wenxue) alongside Chinese anarchists like Mao Yipo (1901–1996) and Lu Jianbo (1904–1990). He also took part in the publication of many Chinese anarchist literary journals. For a Taiwanese anarchist group he wrote an article entitled “A Revolutionary Strategy of Powerless Peoples” (Ruoshao minzu de geming celue) which called for the establishment of a solid, revolutionary organization for freedom and the liberation of all “powerless peoples” while denouncing any kind of “political” movement in the colonies that aimed primarily at political independence without social transformation.
Sim Yonghae (1904–1930), another Korean student at Beijing Minguo University, served as an editor of the Guofeng ribao (“National Customs Daily”), published by the Chinese anarchist Jing Meijiu (1882–1959). Sim himself published the journal Goryeo cheong-nyeon (“Korean Youth”, Gaoli qingnian in Chinese) in China in the winter of 1924, to which prominent Chinese anarchist Li Feigan (known as Bajin, 1904–2005) contributed anarchist writings.
The Korean anarchists in China also learned more about anarchism, and the world situation, through interactions with other anarchists. Vasilij Eroshenko (1889–1952), a blind Russian anarchist and poet, was one such figure. He visited China in the early 1920s after having been deported from Japan for his propagation of “a dangerous idea”, and he propagated cosmopolitan ideas. Interactions with Eroshenko seem to have deeply influenced the Korean anarchists, particularly with regard to Esperanto and cosmopolitanism. Yi Jeonggyu, in fact, became an anarchist after being inspired by Eroshenko. Similarly, Korean anarchists in China like Jeong Hwaam learned about the political realities of Soviet Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution—in particular the communists’ purge of the anarchists—from Eroshenko. After a series of meetings with Eroshenko they became very aware of what Leninist communism in the Soviet Union entailed, firmly convincing them to aim at securing independence based on anarchist principles of social revolution.
A different kind of relationship and inspiration can be also found in the case of Sim Yonghae. While working for the Guofeng ribao, he became acquainted with two Japanese anarchists at the paper, with whom he agreed that their common enemy was Japanese imperialism, and shared the cosmopolitan idea of “Great Unity”: “All under Heaven (tianxia) comprises one family and the whole world (sihai) is full of whole brothers”. Sim’s younger brother, Sim Yongcheol (1914–?), developed fraternal relationships with two Taiwanese anarchists, Fan Benliang (1895/1897/1906–1945) and Lin Bingwen (1897– 1945), while studying; he also made friends with a younger brother of Ho Chi Minh. Suffice it to say that the interactions between the Korean and other anarchists in China generated mutual influence and inspiration.
Education provided another important site of interaction between Korean and other anarchists in China. Lida College (Lida xueyuan) provides the first case. Lida College was established in Shanghai by the Hunanese anarchist Kuang Husheng (1891–1933) and operated for about ten years—from the early 1920s until the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1932. As “the immediate precedent” for the Shanghai Labor University (Shanghai laodong daxue, see below), it became “an esteemed example for many of what an institution for alternative education could accomplish”.
With its main offices at Jiangwan in Shanghai, Lida College hired anarchists for the teaching staff in the Department of Rural Village Education (Nongcun jiaoyuke), part of its senior middle school. Korean anarchist Yu Jamyeong taught agriculture and Japanese language in this department, and students received an education that combined schooling with productive labor, including poultry farming, beekeeping and fruit growing. The department gradually became a gathering place for anarchists, leading Lida College to be called “a home for anarchists”. Due to Yu, several Korean students were enrolled at Lida College, which therefore also became a “gathering place” for the Korean anarchists. It was, in particular, a base in the early 1930s for Korean anarchist activities led by the Alliance of Korean Youths in South China (see below).
According to Korean sources, a bookstore in Shanghai run by Chen Guangguo functioned as a place for contact and communication among anarchists, as well as for book exchanges. Another anarchist gathering place in Shanghai was the Huaguang Hospital (Huaguang yiyuan) in the French Concession: this private hospital was established by the Chinese anarchist Deng Mengxian in the early 1920s, and it lasted until the 1930s. The Hospital served as a place for communication, contact, and refuge not only for Chinese anarchists like Bajin, Mao Yipo, Lu Jianpo but also for other East Asian anarchists, including Koreans. Deng had established a good relationship with Japanese anarchists when he studied abroad in Japan, and he now allowed his hospital to operate as a hub for all the anarchists. It was at the Huaguang Hospital that Yu Jamyeong became acquainted with Bajin and numerous other Chinese anarchists. There, he also met Japanese anarchist Sano Ichirō (then using his Chinese name, Tian Huamin). Jeong Hwaam met the Japanese anarchist Shiroyama Hideo (1901–1982) at the hospital, and the two developed a plan to threaten the Japanese Consul-Generals in Shanghai in order to expose their corruption. Jeong also became acquainted there with Japanese anarchists, Akagawa Haruki (1906–1974, a deserter from the Japanese army) and Take Riyōji (1895–?). These two also joined the plan (which ultimately failed).
At the invitation of Chinese anarchists, Korean anarchists joined in the establishment of the Shanghai National Labor University, which was funded by, and under the control of the Nationalist Party, the Guomindang. This was “a Chinese instance of socialist experiments with alternative education that have sought a means to the creation of socialism through the integration of labor and education”.73 Shen Zhongjiu (1887–1968, “one of the anarchists instrumental in founding” the Labor University), and Wu Kegang (1903–1999) invited the Yi brothers to participate as guest members in the preparation of the launch, from the early planning to the founding. Yi Jeonggyu took a faculty position as lecturer, although he did not have a chance to teach, as he soon had to leave in order to join in the Movement for Rural Self-Defense Communities in Quanzhou (of which more below). Jeong Hwaam “used to go” to the Labor University where he “studied labor issues”, although it is unclear whether he was formally enrolled as a student. Even though the Labor University was under Guomindang control, it had many international faculty including Japanese and French anarchists. For example, Iwasa taught the French Revolution, Ishigawa Sanshirō taught courses on socialism (or the “cultural history of the Orient”) and Yamaga Taiji was in charge of teaching Esperanto, which was compulsory. The international aspect of the Labor University apparently so impressed Korean anarchists that they thought the “representative brains of Far Eastern anarchists” gathered and taught there. It is possible to say, I think, that the Labor University was an East Asian instance—as well as a Chinese instance—of a socialist experiment in alternative education, in which Korean and Japanese anarchists participated.
In addition to Lida College and the Shanghai National Labor University, Chinese anarchists undertook other experiments with new educational institutions and theories, in which Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese anarchists all partook. These included the Dawn Senior Middle School (Liming gaozhong), established in 1929, and its sister school, Common People’s Middle School (Pingmin zhongxue), established a year later. Both were in Quanzhou in Fujian Province. Using the funding from overseas Chinese, the schools shared their facilities and their educational objective: “to cultivate persons of ability through education for living (shenghuo jiaoyu), who are to be revolutionary, scientific, socializing, laboring, and artistic”. To attain this objective, a “commune system” (gongshezhi) was introduced at the Common People’s Middle School in order to integrate faculty, students, and laborers into one unit.
Not surprisingly, both schools had anarchists as faculty, including the Korean anarchists Yu Jamyeong, Yu Seo, Heo Yeolchu, Jang Sumin, and Kim Gyuseon; all taught at one or even both of the schools. The Japanese anarchist Yatabe Yuji taught Esperanto as an elective foreign language at the Common People’s Middle School. Yu Jamyeong taught biology at Dawn Senior Middle School for a semester in 1929 in place of Chen Fanyu (1901–1941), who had taught “social problems” but soon left to teach at Lida College. Other Dawn Senior Middle School faculty included the Taiwanese Cai Xiaoqian and Zheng Yingbai. Up to the early 1930s, the two schools served as centers for “social movements in Quanzhou” and as the important bases for anarchist projects.
These projects included the Movement for Rural Self-Defense Communities in Quanzhou, conducted, again, under the Guomindang banner. This was one of the most significant joint projects by East Asian anarchists in the 1920s, and one in which Korean anarchists seem to have taken a leading role. At the time the area was firmly controlled by the Chinese anarchist Qin Wangshan (1891–1970) under the Guomindang banner, with support from Xu Zhuoran, a graduate of Huangpu Military Academy who sympathized with anarchist ideals. In these circumstances, Chinese anarchists from Sichuan, Hunan, and Guangdong provinces were able to take refuge from the Guomindang’s 1927 purge of the party (qingdang). They usually felt safe there, and, as a result, called Quanzhou “a heaven of peace” (shiwai taoyuan), meaning a utopia. Quanzhou and its vicinity were to remain the largest and most active center of the Chinese anarchist movement between the winter of 1926 and the spring of 1934.
The Chinese anarchists invited both Korean and Japanese anarchists to join the movement. These included Yi Jeonggyu, Yi Eulgyu, Yu Seo, Jeong Hwaam, Iwasa, and Akagawa. While the movement’s larger goal was to raise young anarchist leaders to realize anarchist ideals, its immediate goals were to establish a revolutionary base for anarchist activities, and to organize rural people’s militia (mintuan) by training rural youths to defend their communities from local bandits (tufei) and communists. Its goals seem to have at least two precedents: one was the Chinese “Paris” anarchists’ preference for a “people’s militia” over a regular army, on the grounds that the latter would end up only serving the interests of those in power; the other was the “autonomous village movement”, an experiment in Hunan Province in September 1923 by Yi Jeonggyu and Chen Weiguang (or Chen Weiqi) to build an ideal society where land was commonly possessed and cultivated, and the produce were distributed and consumed equally.
Yi Jeonggyu was apparently one of the leading organizers of the Quanzhou movement. He had known Liang Longguang (a leading Chinese anarchist in the movement) personally, since both had participated in the Shanghai General Strike of March 1927. Yi stated that he was initially reluctant to assist Liang and Qin in the movement because of his commitment to the Shanghai National Labor University, but he soon changed his mind. The decision was, in fact, made collectively at a “Five-Person Meeting” held in Iwasa’s room at Lida College, and attended by Wu Kegang, Iwasa, Liang, and the Yi brothers. According to Yi’s recollection, the meeting granted Yi and Liang responsibility for the Quanzhou movement to educate and organize youths, and he therefore went to Quanzhou in June 1927 with Liang and Qin.
The Korean anarchists Yu Seo and Yi Gihwan later joined, taking responsibility for training and teaching Chinese youths respectively. Yi Jeonggyu himself taught as a faculty member at the Training Center for Publicity Campaign Personnel at Jinxian County ( Jinxian xuanzhuan yuan yangchengsuo). The Training Center was designed to train and educate and make rural youth “cadres” in the rural communities. Yi’s courses covered the history of social movements in the West, critiques of communism, “new politics”, and organizing rural societies, while Yu taught “new economics”, sociology, feudal society, and the analysis of capitalist society. Due mainly to their active and wide participation, the Korean anarchists remembered the Quanzhou movement as a joint project run with Chinese anarchists.
The Quanzhou movement prompted the creation of the Agency for Training People’s Militias in Quanzhou and Yongchun Counties (Quanyong ershu mintuan pianlianchu), under Guomindang’s auspices. Qin directed the agency, and Korean anarchists took key positions in it: Yi Jeonggyu worked as a secretary of the agency; Yi Eulgyu was one of the two heads of the General Affairs Section; Yu Seo was a member of the Propaganda and Education Section; and Yi Gihwan and Yu Jicheong worked in the Training and Guidance Section. The objectives of the agency were to achieve “a free and autonomous life”, “a cooperative laboring life”, and “a cooperative defensive life”. Ultimately it failed in just ten months due to a lack of funds, the unstable political situation in the Quanzhou area, and a Guomindang order to dissolve. The Quanzhou movement’s objectives were in accordance with those of the Korean anarchist movement—self-reliance ( jarib), autonomy (jachi), and self-defense ( jawi )—which helps explain their active participation and key roles in it.
Iwasa’s activity in the Quanzhou movement was also significant. During his stay in Quanzhou, Iwasa planned to establish a “Greater Alliance of East Asian Anarchists” (Dongya wuzhengfu zhuyizhe datongmeng), which he believed could form a revolutionary base for joint East Asian anarchist struggle against imperialism. It is not clear how he planned to realize his scheme, but the idea itself was not novel, as it had already been suggested by Yu Seo in an article in the Chinese anarchist journal Minzhong (“People’s Tocsin”) on the 15 December, 1926. Yu had called for the establishment, in China, of a Greater Alliance of East Asian Anarchists (Dongya wuzhengfu zhuyizhe datongmeng). Arguing that the first step towards anarchist revolution was to launch a movement to liberate colonies, Yu Seo warned that there was a “mad wave” of patriotism among Korean, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese and Taiwanese anarchists. The anarchist movement “must not draw any distinctions among peoples [minzu]”, so the “mad wave” posed a potential danger to it: it might end up a narrow nationalist movement whose aim was simply political independence. East Asian anarchists thus had a responsibility to “extinguish the mad wave” sweeping the region. He warned that it was crucial for all anarchists to get united otherwise their righteous activities and efforts could be seriously undermined. However, Yu also maintained that Koreans still needed to accomplish the overthrow of Japanese imperialism (i.e. independence) prior to the achievement of a social revolution that transcended national boundaries.
It seems that there was an immediate response to Yu’s call (and Iwasa’s scheme) from other anarchists. About 60 anarchists from China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and India, representing their respective countries, gathered in Nanjing in September 1927 to organize an Eastern Anarchist League (Mujeongbu juui dongbang yeonmaeng). Korean anarchists were represented at the gathering by Shin Chaeho, at the request of the Taiwanese anarchist Lin Bingwen. Several decisions were made at the meeting: the League’s headquarters would be in Shanghai; it would build a network of anarchists by connecting them in different countries; and it would publish Dongbang (“The East”).
The first issue of Dongbang appeared on the 20th of August, 1928. Yi Jeonggyu contributed an article entitled “To Inform Eastern Asian Anarchists” (Dongbang Mujeongbu juuija ege gohanda), in which he called for the unity and rallying of “Eastern Anarchists”, as well as for revolution in Korea. Yi was appointed by the League to serve as a secretary, along with Akagawa, Mao Yipo, and Wang Shuren. After the conclusion of the meeting, Shin and Lin devised a plan to raise funds for the League by printing 200 counterfeit foreign notes. This was suggested by Lin, who was then working at the Foreign Exchange Section of the Beijing Postal Management Department. The plan, however, failed and the pair was arrested by the Japanese police, dying in prison.
The 1930s saw the Korean anarchists organize the Federation to Save the Nation through Anti-Japan in October 1931: this was formed in the French concession in Shanghai, with Chinese and Japanese participation. The Alliance of Korean Youths in South China was organized in response to the new situation created by Japan’s all-out invasion of the country. Its declaration reveals interesting aspects of the new society envisioned. Alliance members pledged themselves to build a new Korean society after independence. This could be realized only with the total destruction of social ills like private property and the nationstate, including the “pseudo-morality” of the latter. The new society would be based on absolutely spontaneous alliances among individuals, who would work according to their abilities, and receive in accordance with their needs. In such a society, the declaration explained, cities would have the appearance of farming villages, while villages would have the conveniences of cities. Farming villages and cities alike would be characterized by a scientific combination of agriculture and industry in order to ensure the most effective production. Finally, the declaration argued that such an “artistic” society would have no need for money, as it would be “a society chosen from each individual’s free will, and individuals can work freely there”. Ultimately, “there will be no distinction between intellectual labor [jineung nodong] and physical labor [geunyuk nodong]”, so “no one would come to dislike working”.
The Alliance’s goals, reflected in the above declaration, reveal the ideal anarchist society it wanted to construct by social revolution. Of cardinal significance in the declaration are ideas like combining agriculture and industry and combining mental and manual labor, with individual transformation as the point of departure in the project of social change. These ideas had already been widely propagated and professed by the “Paris Chinese anarchists”. These ideas were also the ideals of the Shanghai National Labor University and of the educational experiments of Chinese (and other East Asian) anarchists. These ideals and languages were seemingly still alive here, employed by Korean anarchists in 1930s China. There is no concrete evidence explaining why and how the ideas were revived by the Alliance at the time it started armed, terror-oriented struggles against Japan. It is nevertheless revealing that many Koreans in the Alliance had worked with Chinese and Japanese anarchists in joint anarchist projects like Lida College, the Labor University and the Quanzhou movement. It is also revealing that one of the post-1945 Korean anarchist projects promoted (in the 1960s) “domestic industry” in rural villages.
As I have demonstrated above, Korean anarchism before 1945 can be best understood as the product of interactions, both direct and indirect, between Korean anarchists and their counterparts in China and Japan. The interactions took the forms of association, affiliation, reading works and translations (mainly by Chinese and Japanese anarchists), and finally, joint activity.
The transnational linkages of Korean anarchism to East Asian anarchism were therefore obvious. More important was mutual influence and inspiration among East Asian anarchists, which helped Korean anarchists not only articulate their national goal, but to realize their common destiny with other anarchists under capitalism and colonialism.
Through such interaction Korean anarchists adjusted, accommodated, and articulated within a colonial situation their national goal as well as the universal messages of anarchism. I argue, therefore, that Korean anarchism needs to be understood in a broader regional context that underlines interactions among anarchists in the area—rather than in narrow nationalist accounts or from a Eurocentric perspective—in order to underscore its interactive and transnational aspects at its inception and rise.
It is arguable that the influence and inspiration of Chinese and Japanese anarchists on Korean anarchists during their interactions were instrumental in the rise of Korean anarchism. The close association of Korean anarchists in China with the Provisional Government of Korea in Shanghai, for example, may have been a result of the influence of the “Paris Chinese anarchists”, who saw revolution as an endless process and therefore viewed the 1911 establishment of a republic in China as a progressive process. On the other hand, the Korean anarchists based in Japan focused more on class struggle and union movements because of their close affiliations with Japanese anarchists. It is, however, unlikely (and I do not suggest it) that the influence and inspiration came only from the Chinese and Japanese anarchists; rather, these influences were mutual and their flow went in both directions.
A regional perspective allows us to see this interactive aspect of Korean anarchism—and of East Asian anarchism more generally. Movements by anarchists in the region, as well as their ideas and languages, formed networks of relationships. Korean anarchism was not the only one constituted by these movements, nor was it simply the product of the Korean anarchists outside the country. It can be argued that there was a mutual contribution made by East Asian anarchists to the rise of anarchism in each East Asian society. It is also important to deal with the complex relationship between nationalism and anarchism in colonial contexts, which is demonstrated in the rise of Korean anarchism. A regional and transnational approach helps us to move away from a Eurocentric understanding of anarchism in both
Western and South Korean scholarship that usually misses the relationship between national consciousness and transnational concerns in the rise of anarchism in colonial and semi-colonial contexts.
This paper, too, suggests a shift in historical perspectives on the study of modern East Asian history away from nation-based ones to a broader regional approach. The Korean acceptance and articulation of anarchism that I have described above, I think, offers a good example of the usefulness of the shift. Korean anarchism before 1945 was not simply a means to achieve the national goal of independence; Korean anarchists were not wedded only to nationalism. The transnational commitments and regional nature of Korean anarchism, however, does not suggest that Korean anarchists ever gave up their commitment to independence. Rather, it indicates the role of transnationalism played in the formation of national discourses, including the impact of East Asian anarchism as a whole on the rise of Korean anarchism. The national impulse in Korean anarchism is not to be underestimated; it functioned very constructively in the acceptance and articulation of anarchism within the colonial context.
Japan’s surrender in 1945 to the Allied Powers did not provide an opportunity for Korean anarchists to realize their ideals, for the situation under the US occupation, the subsequent division of Korea, and the emergence of anti-socialist and pro-American conservative regime in 1948 in South Korea, led them to emphasize the nationalistic and anti-communist aspects of Korean anarchism—if only for survival in the face of the dictatorial and military regimes that ruled until the early 1990s. Many transnational and radical ideals, shared with other anarchists, have, I think, long been put aside.
It may be possible to say that Korean anarchism was, besides its nationalist elements, a mixture of many different anarchist trends, with differences possibly “unnoticed” or disregarded—such as the difference between “pure anarchism” and anarchist syndicalism. In describing Japanese anarchism before 1923, John Crump argued it was striking how “unnoticed” such differences were, and suggested that this may have indicated how “little time” Japanese anarchists had “for pondering over theoretical questions”. Given the harsh conditions and various constraints Korean anarchists faced as foreign students and/or exiles in Japan and China, let alone the tight censorship and surveillance by the Japanese police in colonial Korea itself, as well as their immediate focus on independence, Korean anarchists, too, might have spent (or might have wanted to spend) “little time” on theoretical differences. This, in turn, may partly explain the “tension” or “contradiction” many expressed over the national question, as well as complicated process of “selection” from, and articulation of, anarchism. This, of course, is not to suggest that there were no theoretical questions raised and discussed, but to suggest that the complexities and nuances in Korean anarchism were indicative of the national and regional circumstances of which it was a product, which might partly explain the prevailing misunderstanding of Korean anarchism as an “aberration” from anarchism in its European setting.
Finally, the activities and ideas of Korean anarchists I have demonstrated above vindicate, for now, my claim that there were radical, transnational communities of discourse and activity in such locations as Shanghai and Tokyo, where radical ideas and cultures, as well as languages of change, revolution, imperialism, and so forth, were forged, discussed and formed, even experimented upon, although there is certainly scope for more detailed study.
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Chinese University of Hong Kong
I take up in this discussion some questions thrown up by anarchism as it is transplanted in political, social and cultural/intellectual environments different from the one that gave rise to it in the first place. I will base my discussion for the most part on anarchism in China in the early part of the 20th century, although I will suggest also that what the Chinese experience has to tell us may be of far broader significance. The issue is ultimately the relationship between anarchism and place.
This issue has not received much attention from anarchists, possibly due to the universalistic assumptions of anarchist theory concerning human nature and community, which supposedly are driven by the same forces regardless of place or time. While historically speaking anarchism is clearly a product of European modernity, anarchists have been quick to discover anarchism in all kinds of places, from smallscale tribal societies in Africa to ancient Chinese philosophies. This has served to reinforce anarchist universalism but also rendered anarchism ideologically ahistorical.
Anarchist universalism not only flies in the face of historical evidence, but is no longer tenable at a time when the legacies of universalism are under suspicion due to their entanglement in Eurocentrism. Anarchism is arguably the most consistently (even naively) universalistic of all the intellectual products of Enlightenment thinking in Europe, and needs to confront contemporary challenges to Eurocentrism.
On the other hand, any such confrontation requires also that we recognize problems with the term “Eurocentrism” itself, which is used uncritically as a cliché in much contemporary writing in Cultural Studies. The products of Enlightenment thinking themselves have histories, modified in time and place. Anarchists, like other 19th century radicals, participated in the circulation of people and ideas across the length and breadth of Europe. Nevertheless, two of the greatest thinkers of anarchism, Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, were themselves products also of Enlightenment thinking as it was filtered through the concerns and experiences of imperial Russia in the middle of the 19th century, and brought their own experiences into their formulations of anarchism.
The anarchism that Chinese intellectuals of the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) encountered in the early part of the 20th century was already a product of global circulation, having spilled out of Europe into locations across Asia, Africa and Latin America—most importantly in their case, Japan. This no doubt enhanced the impression of universalism, as it did with other ideas from various forms of socialism to liberalism and conservatism. Nevertheless, we need to be more closely cognizant of the articulations of anarchism to place (including, ironically, nationalism) in grasping its historical mutations.
My goal here is not to subject anarchism to localized explanations, especially localized explanations of a culturalist sort that give priority to the burdens of the past over the demands of the present. Such explanations, in their efforts to localize anarchism (or any other current of thought), ironically negate the historicity of the intellectual encounter in their very historicism. For the same reason, they also end up erasing the revolutionary impact of the new idea. My concern rather is to look more closely into efforts to domesticate the new idea without erasing its novelty, which required its articulation to local concerns and intellectual legacies. If native experiences shaped the translation of anarchism into local idiom, the very act of translation transformed the local idiom as well. The result was a contemporary structural context that contained the past as a crucial moment but also endowed it with radical new meanings. It is this dialectic that demands closer a ttention not just for purposes of historical explanation but for the social and political implications of anarchism not just then but presently as well.
Anarchism in China is best grasped through a regional perspective that makes it possible to glimpse the many translocal ties within which anarchism flourished for a period of three decades. A recently published study has demonstrated how revolutionaries in Eastern Asia— from Japan and the Philippines through China and Southeast Asia all the way to India-learned the lessons of modern nationalism and revolution not just from their confrontations with Europe and North America, but also from their interactions with one another, producing localized discourses of revolution. In the case of some Eastern Asian societies, most notably, the Chinese, the spread of populations of Chinese origin in the region and beyond (to North America, for instance) rendered radical nationalist politics regional automatically. It is likely that the nationalism of Chinese Overseas influenced nationalist politics in Eastern, especially Southeastern, Asia, which may be deserving of closer attention. Radicals circulating in these areas certainly had occasion for intensified contact with one another, which not only helped the spread of nationalist politics, but also fostered a regional and even an Asian “racial” and cultural consciousness as they became more aware of the similar fate Asians suffered at the hands of Euro/American imperialism.
From the late 19th century into the early twentieth, Tokyo served as a location for radical education and activity that is quite reminiscent of the role played by London for radicals in Europe. Tokyo served as a beacon of modern education within an Eastern Asia that was marked already by uneven development and colonialism. Students and radicals from across Asia (as far away as the Ottoman Empire at the other end of the continent) converged in Tokyo; their interactions fueling the radicalism that found expression most visibly in nationalism, but also, almost immediately from the first decade of the century, in socialism, beginning with anarchism, and culminating in the ultimate victory of Leninist Marxism in China, Korea and Vietnam. As intraregional interactions were of significance in the spread of a revolutionary discourse, radicals also participated in joint revolutionary struggles that sought to achieve liberation from the forces of colonialism and imperialism. Nationalism would ultimately distance radicals in the region from one another, but still allowed for cooperation in the first half of the 20th century in struggles against what they perceived as common national and class enemies.
Anarchism was the dominant ideology during the first phase of socialism in Eastern Asia. Its spread during the first two decades of the 20th century allows a glimpse into the regional dynamics of radicalism. Anarchism provided an alternative to the pervasive social Darwinian ideas of the period with its legitimation of conflict and imperialism. Intellectuals in Japan, China, Vietnam and Korea found hope in the anarchist promise of progress through “mutual aid”, which may explain why Piotr Kropotkin was the most important anarchist theoretician to have widespread influence in East Asia. Anarchist intellectuals in turn introduced into radical thinking in East Asia ideas that ranged from universal education to social participation in politics, from the importance of women in society to the contradictions between the family and society, from the ill effects upon society of the separation of manual from mental labor to the necessity of combining agriculture and industry in any viable vision of the future, and, underlying all, a conviction that all politics must in the end be social politics, as all economics must be social economics.
These ideas were encompassed within a notion of social revolution, or, more broadly, of the social, of which the anarchists were the first, and the most enthusiastic, proponents. Among the ideas that anarchists introduced into East Asian thinking that were to have a lasting influence was the idea of “social revolution”; the idea, in other words, that significant political change could not be realized unless it was based on social transformation. While some anarchists were attracted to violence as a means of social transformation, others repudiated violence in favor of peaceful methods, especially universal education. But they all shared a belief that society, and social forces, were determinants of politics, and must provide the point of departure for any meaningful change.
Ideas and values that had their origins in East Asian intellectual and political traditions, that might have helped produce original reformulations of anarchism, were to play little part in the historical development of anarchism in East Asia or elsewhere. This was due mainly to a seeming preference on the part of anarchists (East Asian or otherwise) simply to appropriate those values for anarchism, or, conversely, to appropriate anarchism for East Asian values; rather than to articulate those ideas and values to European anarchist formulations to which they bore some resemblance, but which nevertheless were motivated by different historical and social concerns.
Anarchist ideas when they first appeared in East Asia represented a different comprehension of political space than had existed in East Asian societies earlier. Scholars of anarchism in East Asia have made efforts to locate anarchism within various legacies of the past-from neo-Confucianism to Daoism and Buddhism. Such effort is more a product of a culturalism that pervades studies of East Asia than of a historical accounting for the appearance of anarchism under concrete historical circumstances, that eschews a clear distinction between historical causation, and the appropriation of the past for a historical consciousness that had its sources elsewhere. It not only conflicts with the anarchists’ self-images as revolutionaries, but with historical evidence as well. Anarchism, and the social revolutionary consciousness that it promoted, were products of a new historical situation created by capitalist modernity, and the political reorganization it called for in the form of the nation-state. European anarchists such as Kropotkin were among the foremost advocates of Enlightenment promises of science and democracy.
Anarchists in East Asia for the most part subscribed to similar ideas in defiance of native traditions, which brought to them no end of trouble. Where they discovered anarchism in native traditions, it was with a new consciousness of politics that they did so, and it entailed the reinterpretation of the past through the demands and consciousness of the present. In the end, numbers provide the most eloquent testimonial. Despite claims to a Chinese cultural proclivity to anarchism, very few Chinese became anarchists, and anarchism was stigmatized throughout as “dangerous thinking”. What is more to the point, is a certain inclination on the part of Chinese (and other Eastern Asian) anarchists to conjoin anarchist ideals to nationalist goals.
All this is quite evident in the unfolding of anarchism in East Asia, which found expression first in Japan, and spread quickly among Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean intellectuals. The history of anarchism in East Asia bears testimonial to the remarkable circulation of ideas in that region, which was facilitated by the circulation of intellectuals themselves and intensified in the early part of this century. In this sense, it is possible to speak of an East Asian regional formation constructed by joint activity and a common discourse. Anarchism, with its repudiation of the nation-state, provided a suitable medium for the expression of regional solidarity.
Consciousness of socialism as a cure to the problems of industrial society appeared first in Japan in the late 1890s, when Japan’s industrial development had already brought forth a concern with “social problems”. Those who identified themselves as socialists were also concerned, however, with the power of the state as well as with Japanese imperialism in East Asia. It was one of these socialists, Kōtoku Shūsui (1871–1911), who was the first to declare himself an anarchist. Thrown in jail in early 1905 for his anti-war (the Russo-Japanese War) activities, Kōtoku wrote to a foreign friend that he “had gone [to prison] as a Marxian socialist and returned a radical anarchist”. His readings in jail, especially of Kropotkin’s works (most importantly, Fields, Factories, and Workshops), left a profound impression on him, leading to the transformation. After he was released from jail, Kōtoku left for the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was involved both with radicals (among them, Jean Grave) and radical activities. His experiences in the
United States led him to abandon parliamentary tactics in favor of “direct action”. After he returned to Japan in June 1906, Kōtoku was involved in radical social activities (especially the movement triggered by the Ashio Copper Mine treatment of workers, and its pollution of the land), and was also able to sway the newly-founded Japanese Socialist Party to his views on “direct action”. His activities ran him afoul of the authorities, who charged him with a conspiracy to assassinate the Meiji Emperor. Kōtoku was executed in early 1911.
It was during this period that anarchism also emerged as a distinct current within the burgeoning socialist movement among Chinese intellectuals. Following the Boxer Uprising in 1900, the Qing Dynastic government sent students abroad in large numbers as part of its reform movement. In 1906–1907, two anarchist groups appeared among these intellectuals abroad, one in Paris, the other in Tokyo. The New World Society, established in Paris in 1906, began in 1907 to publish a journal, The New Era, which for the next three years would serve as a major source of anarchist theory, and information on the anarchist movement in Europe.
Its guiding light was Li Shizeng (1881–1954) who had gone to France to study biology, and converted to anarchism through his acquaintance with the family of the French anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus. The New Era promoted a revolutionary futuristic anarchism, and was among the first Chinese publications to openly attack native traditions, in particular, Confucianism. An anarchist society established in Tokyo almost simultaneously, the Society for the Study of Socialism, by contrast promoted an anti-modernist anarchism influenced by Leo Tolstoy, and stressed the affinity between anarchism and philosophical currents in the Chinese past, especially Daoism. Led by the classical scholar Liu Shipei (1884–1919) and his wife, He Zhen (?), this society published its own journals, Natural Justice and Balance. Interestingly, these Tokyo publications evinced a more radical stance on contemporary issues than their counterpart in Paris, especially on issues of anti-imperialism and feminism. The publications also promoted Kropotkin’s ideas on the combination of agriculture and industry in social organization, and the social and ethical benefits of combining mental and manual labor, which were to have a lasting influence in Chinese radicalism. Kōtoku Shūsui was a keynote speaker at the founding conference of the Society for the Study of Socialism.
It was through association with Chinese anarchists in Tokyo that anarchism entered Vietnamese radicalism. The Vietnamese radical Phan Boi Chau (1867–1940), who was in Tokyo at this same time, engaged in common activities with Chinese and Japanese radicals. The Pan-Asian anti-imperialism of the Chinese anarchists resonated with Phan’s own concerns about the liberation of Vietnam from French colonialism. Hue-Tam Ho Tai suggests, however, that Phan, of a conservative temperament, may also have found attractive the “nativistic orientation” of the “Tokyo” Chinese anarchists.
The treason trial and the execution of Kōtoku Shūsui in 1911 “signaled the ‘winter period’ for anarchism in Japan, which was to continue until the end of the First World War”. Anarchist activity did not cease; Ōsugi Sakae (1885–1923), who over the next decade emerged as the foremost figure in Japanese anarchism, continued with publication and organizational activities, but under strict police supervision (Ōsugi himself was in and out of jail continuously), such activity was sporadic and short-lived, and without much consequence in Japan, although Ōsugi exerted considerable influence on anarchists in China and, later, Korea.
In contrast to the situation in Japan, anarchism grew deeper roots among Chinese radicals during the decade among intellectuals on the Chinese mainland, who suffered from police interference similarly to their Japanese counterparts, but also had greater space for action in the turmoil following the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Anarchist activity was visible in the burgeoning labor movement in South China. Paris anarchists brought their activities home, and were especially influential in educational circles.
And a new generation of anarchists appeared in South China around the figure of an assassin turned anarchist, Liu Sifu (1884–1915), better known by his adopted name of Shifu. The Cock-Crow Society that Shifu established in 1912 and its journal, People’s Voice, served in the mid-1910s as the most important organs of anarchism in China. Shifu promoted the social anarchism of Kropotkin, and while not a particularly original thinker, played an important part in his polemics with the socialist Jiang Kanghu (1883–?) in clarifying differences between anarchism (“pure socialism”) and other currents in socialism. It was above all his seriousness of purpose that impressed his followers and others, so that by the 1920s his ideas would achieve the status of an “ism”, Shifu’ism. Shifu died in 1915 but his followers carried on the activities of the Society he had founded.
By the late 1910s, educational reform activities had gotten underway in Beijing that would culminate in the New Culture Movement of the late teens and early twenties, which was to play a seminal role in the cultural revolution in modern China. “Paris” anarchists and their associates were to play an important part in these reforms; they were joined enthusiastically by the younger anarchists who had received their training under Shifu’s tutelage. Anarchist ideas on the family, youth and women, the communal experiments that they promoted, and their concern for labor acquired broad currency in the culture of a new generation, even though not many were aware of their anarchist origins within the Chinese context. Among those to come under anarchist influence was Mao Zedong who, like many later Bolsheviks, expressed enthusiasm at this time for European anarchists and their ideas. Anarchists also played a part in the founding of the first Bolshevik groups in China which would culminate in the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921, gradually to overshadow the anarchists, and to marginalize them in Chinese radicalism.
The flourishing of anarchism in China in the 1910s also continued to nourish anarchism in Vietnam. Phan Boi Chau, who moved to South China after 1911, received the support not only of his former associates from Tokyo, but of Liu Sifu as well, who helped him financially but also advised him on his organizational activities, one product of which was the League for the Prosperity of China and Asia, which “aimed to foster solidarity between China and the colonized countries of Asia, in particular Vietnam, India, Burma, and Korea”.
By the early twenties, however, this situation was reversed, and anarchism entered a decline from which it would not recover. Following the October Revolution in Russia, anarchists found a formidable competitor on the left; Bolshevik communists who commanded better organizational abilities, were more effective therefore in organizing the growing labor movements, and, not incidentally, received backing from the new Soviet Union. Anarchists made a comeback in Japan initially in a context of increasing labor activism and political relaxation. Ōsugi Sakae was murdered in 1923 by the police, but anarchist and syndicalist activity continued to grow nevertheless, under the guidance of Hatta Shūzō (1886–1934), a former clergyman turned anarchist, who sought to rid anarchism from its contamination by Marxist elements by formulating a “pure anarchism”. Anarchists were riddled with conflicts between syndicalists and the “pure anarchists”, but in the end it was the political repression of the thirties that put an end to all radicalism in Japan. In China and Vietnam competition from Bolshevism proved to be debilitating. By 1927, Chinese anarchists, in their anti-Bolshevism, devoted their efforts mainly to fighting Bolshevik ideological and labor activity, some of them in collusion with the most reactionary elements in Chinese politics.
The one exception to this trend was among Korean radicals. In the early twenties, Korean radicals established anarchist societies at v arious locations in China, and in Tokyo. Like their Vietnamese counterparts, Korean anarchists were drawn to anarchism most importantly for its anti-imperialism. Some of them also found appealing the anarchist emphasis on “direct action”, which offered a strategy of mass mobilization against the Japanese colonial government. Shin Chaeho (1880–1936), who was active in China, was the most prominent of
Korean anarchists, and author of the 1923 “Declaration of the Korean Revolution”. He found in anarchism a justification for mass violence against colonialism. He also believed that anarchism provided an alternative to Bolshevik despotism, and the control of the radical movement by Moscow.
Korean anarchists active in Tokyo also stressed the importance of anarchism in the anti-colonial struggle. The entanglement of anarchism in anti-colonial nationalism may be an important reason for many Korean scholars’ insistence that anarchists were little more than nationalists in disguise. There is good evidence also, however, of internationalist commitments of the Korean anarchists, some of whom contributed to the development of anarchism elsewhere. Yu Jamyeong (Liu Ziming in Chinese) and Sim Yonghae (Shen Ronghai in Chinese) were two such Korean anarchists who taught and engaged in publication activities in China, and eventually became Chinese citizens.
Anarchism may have had the most lasting influence in China. While politically irrelevant after the mid-twenties, anarchists continued to be active in the labor movement in South China, where they continued to challenge communist organization. During the Anti-Japanese Resistance War after 1937, anarchists in Sichuan in Western China agitated for popular mobilization in the conduct of the War. Some Chinese anarchists would also participate in the late 1930s in the Spanish Civil War against the forces of Fascism.
More significant in the long run were cultural and educational activities. In the cultural arena, the most important contributions were those of Li Feigan (known as Bajin, 1904–2005), the novelist who for years was the only Chinese anarchist of stature familiar to anarchist circles abroad. Equally interesting is the career of Li Shizeng, one of the foundational figures of anarchism in China, who in the 1930s turned his attention to the study of migrant societies under the rubric of qiaologie, which may best be rendered into something like “diasporology”. Interestingly, despite his close association with the nationalistically obsessed Guomindang Right, Li saw in migrant societies a key to the cosmopolitanism required by a new world. Whether or not an anarchist sociology survived the communist victory in 1949 is a subject deserving of investigation.
“Paris” anarchists used their influence within the Goumindang, of which they constituted the right-wing in their anti-Communism, to establish a Labor University in Shanghai in 1927, which for a period of five years sought to put in practice the anarchist belief in the necessity of combining mental and manual labor in education. This belief, and the Kropotkinite insistence on combining agriculture and industry in social development, had become part of radical culture during the New Culture Movement. Both would reappear after 1949 during efforts to rejuvenate the promises of the revolutionary movement, most importantly in the twenty year period from 1956 to 1976 that is dismissed these days as a period of deviations from socialism due to the misdeeds of the Cultural Revolution. These anarchist contributions to Chinese radicalism would outlast the anarchist movement, and appear after 1949 as important elements in the conflicts over Bolshevik bureaucratism within the Communist Party itself.
Political and ideological differences among the Chinese anarchists were visible in the different readings they placed on anarchism and, by implication, on the question of its relationship to Chinese cultural legacies, which were themselves in the process of radical reevaluation in the early part of the 20th century. The “Paris” anarchists were involved in the anti-monarchical activities of the emergent Guomindang, and displayed little tolerance for native philosophical legacies. Resolutely modernist, they fetishized science, and called for a cultural revolution (they were the first among Chinese revolutionaries to call for a “Confucius Revolution”). The strategy of revolution they favored was “universal education” to remake the Chinese population. This was also the strategy they favored in later years as powerful members of the Guomindang.
The “Tokyo” anarchists, by contrast, promoted an anti-modernist anarchism. Liu Shipei had made his fame as a classical scholar before he became an anarchist, and was a leading light of the “national essence” group that advocated a reformulation of received culture in the reconstruction of China as a nation. Seemingly conservative, the search for “national essence” was actually quite subversive in its implications as it sought to formulate out of past legacies a national essence that could be used to challenge the contemporary status quo. Liu himself did not hesitate to find analogies between the Chinese and European pasts, as in his comparisons between the cultural efflorescence of the late Zhou Dynasty (roughly 6th–3rd centuries BCE) and the European Renaissance.
Liu’s approach to anarchism similarly sought to establish analogies between modern anarchism and currents in native thought. Indeed, he believed that premodern Chinese thought came closer to upholding anarchist social ideals than its counterparts elsewhere. In a speech to the inaugural meeting of the Society for the Study of Socialism Liu stated that though the imperial political system had been despotic in appearance, the power of the government had been remote from the lives of the people, who thus had considerable freedom from politics. Furthermore, advocacy of laissez-faire government by Confucianism and Daoism had helped minimize government intervention in society. As a result, he concluded, China was more likely than other societies to achieve anarchism; he implied, in fact, that if only Chinese could be purged of their habits of obedience (but he did not say where those came from!), anarchism could be achieved in China in the very near future. The fifth issue of Natural Justice carried a picture of Laozi as the father of anarchism in China. In formulating his utopian scheme, Liu acknowledged his debt to Xu Xing, an agrarian utopianist of the 3rd century B.C.E., who had advocated a rural life as the ideal life, and promoted the virtues of manual labor by all without distinction, including the Emperor. Liu noted that whereas he himself advocated cooperation, Xu had promoted self-sufficiency, but otherwise he saw no significant difference between Xu’s ideas and his own.
Among Western anarchists, Liu found in Tolstoy confirmation of the ideals that he “discovered” in native sources. Like Tolstoy, he idealized rural life and manual labor, and opposed a commercialized economy. He believed that Chinese society had begun to degenerate with the emergence of a money economy during the late Zhou. The money economy had led to the strengthening of despotism. The commercial economy had led to the impoverishment of many, prompting government efforts to establish controls over land.
Liu almost certainly had Sun Yat-sen’s “equalization of land rights” in mind when he described this development as one that enhanced despotic government. His suspicion of the commercial economy also underlay his hostility to recent changes in Chinese society. He emphasized the destruction of the rural economy under pressure from Western commerce, and the ensuing crisis this had created for the peasantry. He also expressed a strong dislike for the kind of urbanization represented by Shanghai’s colonial modernity as a moral sink where men degenerated into thieves and women into prostitutes. The kind of development he favored was one that sought to overcome such degeneration. He was to find it in Kropotkin’s suggestion of combining agriculture and industry, and thus preventing the alienation of rural from urban life as in modern society.
Anarchism was also entangled in its reception in the late Qing in a revival of interest in Buddhism. Not only were there Buddhist monks among Chinese anarchists, but the Guangdong anarchists led by Shifu displayed more than a casual interest in Buddhism. Efforts to find some kind of equivalence between anarchism and native Chinese philosophies gradually declined among a newer generation that was nourished on the anti-traditionalism of the New Culture Movement of the 1920s.
It is tempting, in light of these early efforts, to conclude that there was indeed some resonance between native philosophical legacies and anarchism that facilitated Qing intellectuals’ attraction to anarchism. This obviously was not the case for all anarchists, some of whom were attracted to anarchism for exactly the opposite reason: its promise of revolutionary cultural and social transformation. Care needs to be exercised even in the case of those who sought to find some affinity between received philosophies and anarchism. Translation of anarchist ideas into native concepts and practices may have helped familiarize those ideas, but it also required re-reading native texts, and endowing them with a new meaning. The re-reading of the past was intended not to show the way to the restoration of imagined practices of the past but to social transformation towards a future of which the past would be one element among others, no less the modern for its help in bringing modernity under control.
Anarchism was the beneficiary of a strong utopian strain in Chinese thinking in the early 20th century that accompanied, and provided a counterpoint to, nationalist anxieties about the possibilities of survival in a world dominated by Euro/American imperialism. But it is not to be dismissed, therefore, as merely utopian. “Paris” anarchists’ advocacy of universal education as the means to cultural and social revolution would have long term consequences in radical politics in the 1920s and 1930s. “Tokyo” anarchists proved to be forerunners of feminism, as well as of strategies of development that would reappear with greater force in later years in Maoist efforts to devise a revolutionary alternative to capitalist or Soviet socialist development. Guangdong anarchists would be particularly prominent in the labor movement, especially in Southern China.
Nevertheless, anarchism in general suffered from an abstractness that limited anarchist efforts to convert their social revolutionary ideals into lasting practice. This was very much the case with the “Paris” anarchists with their commitment to a scientistic universalism that blinded them to peculiarities of time and space even when they undertook projects of the utmost practicality, such as the work-study projects they sponsored in France, or the Labor University in Shanghai. But it was also the case with the anarchism of a Liu Shipei who, in his resistance to the promises of modernity from technology to urbanization to capitalism in general, was more inclined to explore the relationship between anarchism and native cultural legacies that might have facilitated the domestication of anarchism, and secured greater popular receptivity to its premises. In discovering anarchism in native legacies, however, Liu ignored their differences from anarchism. The failure to recognize difference rendered articulation meaningless: rather than articulate anarchism to local values to produce a genuinely localized version of anarchism, Liu simply appropriated native legacies for anarchism. The appropriation gave its peculiar coloring to his anarchism. But, rather than bring anarchism closer to the ground, it ended up distancing native legacies from the ground in which they had flourished.
The problem here is similar to the problem that the communists faced a few decades later when they sought to “sinicize” Marxism in order to create a vernacular socialism that could be phrased in the language of everyday life—which was to go a long ways in securing communist victory in 1949. Still, as the subsequent history of the People’s Republic reveals, any such effort threatens claims to universality, and presents the predicament of dissipation into the local beyond recognition. This, however, need not be the case. The rendering of socialism into the language of place also changes that language, bringing into it an idiom that connects it to other places that have come into the orbit of socialism. So long as there is a reference beyond the local, that refers the local to a broader undertaking of which it is part, difference may be difference within unity rather than against it.
The predicament that Chinese anarchists (and later Marxists) faced in the early 20th century may have something to say presently to the stateless social movements that represent the best hope out of the iron cage of global capitalism. The so-called new social movements need to be grounded in place so as to address problems of everyday life, but they also need to be part of something larger if they are to survive oppression and achieve their goals. Radicals committed to social change, be they anarchists, Marxists, or social democrats of one stripe or another, if they are to overcome the one-sidedness that has h ampered social activity in the past, need to respond to the contradictory demands of the local and the translocal in which these social movements are embedded. That means not just bringing theory or ideology to the local, but also rephrasing them in the language of places-without forgetting what the theory and the ideology have to say beyond the local. Not an easy task, but none the less essential for that.
John Crump, Hatta Shūzō and Pure Anarchism in Interwar Japan, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Selcuk Esenbel, “Japan’s Global Claim to Asia and the World of Islam: Transnational Nationalism and World Power, 1900–1945”, American Historical Review, 109: 4, 2004, 1140–1170.
Hagiwara, Shintaro, Nihon Anakizumu rōdō undō shi, Tokyo: Gendai shochosha, 1969.
Hon, Tze-ki, “Revolution as Restoration: The Meanings of ‘National Essence’ and ‘National Learning’ in the Guocui xuebao (“National Essence Journal”), 1905–1911”, paper presented at “The Writing of History in 20th Century East Asia: Between Linear Time and the Reproduction of National Consciousness”, Leiden, 4–7 June 2007.
Karl, Rebecca, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
Krebs, Edward, Shifu: Soul of Chinese Anarchism, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.
Notehelfer, F., Kōtoku Shūsui: Portrait of a Japanese Radical, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
Tai, Hue-Tam Ho, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Tsou, Nancy and Len Tsou, Ganlan guiguande zhaohuan: Canjia Xibanya neizhande Zhongguo ern (1936–1939) (“The Call of the Olive Laurel: Chinese in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939”, English title on the cover given as “The Call of Spain”), Taipei: Renjian Publishers, 2001.
Peter Zarrow, Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow
The Makhnovist movement of 1917–1921 represents the clearest and most powerful manifestation of anarchism in Ukraine. However, it is essential to bear in mind that this movement reflected the particular features of only one part of the very heterogeneous Ukraine, which to this day is still distinctly divided into the West (Galicia), the Central part of the country (the northern part of the Right Bank of the Dnepr), the South (including the Crimea), the Left Bank, and the Donbass.
The territory in which the Makhnovists held sway primarily encompassed Priazove (the region close to the Sea of Azov), the southern part of the Left Bank, and the eastern Donbass. The Makhnovists also operated on the Right Bank, mainly in Ekaterinoslav, as well as in the Poltava region and the Chernigov region. The Makhnovist movement—the Makhnovischna or “Makhno movement”—was named after the anarchist Nestor Ivanovich Makhno “1888–1934.” It had its roots in a quarter of the small town of Gulyai-Pole in the Aleksandrov District.
The history of this area is associated with Cossack outlaws, agricultural struggle and nomadic culture. However, by the beginning of the 20th century only the memory of the Zaporozhe Cossacks remained. New people with a new way of life had settled in the local steppe.
Marxist historiography maintained that this was a kulak area (that is, dominated by prosperous landed peasants who employed labor), and that kulak farms accounted for 22 percent of all agriculture in the region. But this figure can be arrived at only by counting as kulaks peasants who had at their disposal more than 10.9 hectares of land, a view that even in the Marxist historiography is regarded as “extreme”. Large estates and peasant farming still constituted the basis of agriculture in the area. Kulakism was concentrated primarily in the German farms—an alien phenomenon within the local peasant milieu. The attempt during the Stolypin reforms to destroy the peasant commune, or obshchina, met with great resistance in the Ekaterinoslav province.
The territory in which the Makhno movement was to develop was one of the most market-oriented in the whole of the Russian empire. By the early 20th century, the Ukraine was the empire’s richest farming region in the empire: it accounted for 40 percent of cultivated land, and, by 1914, produced around 20 percent of the world’s wheat and nearly 90 percent of the empire’s wheat exports. The proximity of the ports and the well-developed rail network stimulated the development of the grain market.
In 1913, for example, the Ekaterinaoslav province produced approximately 1,789 metric tons of wheat. Of these, 860 metric tons were exported outside the province. This is to leave out of account the intra-provincial market, which was also quite extensive, as the province had numerous industrial centers that required bread. The peasants remained the most active force within the Ekaterinoslav bread market: between 1862 and 1914 the peasants of the steppe region succeeded in buying up almost half the landlords’ (pomeshchiki) land. But the landowners relentlessly raised the price of land. Relying on the support of government, they sought to retain a leasing relationship with the peasants. Naturally this aroused hostility from the peasants towards all forms of large-scale private ownership, whether on the part of the landed gentry or the kulaks. At the same time the communalyet-market form of peasant agriculture facilitated the development of various forms of agricultural cooperatives, which the zemstvos (local governments with class-based representation) actively supported.
The market orientation of obshchina agriculture also contributed to the development, in what became the Makhnovist territory, of agricultural machine production and other agriculture-related industry. 24.4 percent of the country’s agricultural machinery was produced in the Ekaterinoslav and Tavrischeskaya provinces, compared with only 10 percent in Moscow. A significant proportion of industry in the Ekaterinoslav province was dispersed around the province, and small towns and large villages became genuine agro-industrial complexes. In the future capital of the Makhnovists, Gulyai-Pole, there was an iron foundry and two steam mills, and in the Gulyai-Pole rural district (volost), there were 12 tile and brick works.
This led not only to a highly commercialized economy, but also to close relations between the peasantry and the working class, which was dispersed among various rural locations. Many peasants also moved away to become wage-earners in the neighboring large industrial centers. At the same time, they were able to return to the village in the event of an industrial crisis. The village itself, in such cases, was to a great extent protected from industrial shortages, since much industrial production occurred on the spot, locally. Under these circumstances the big cities seemed to the peasants alien, and not especially relevant.
The prevailing social order in Priazove did not favor the development of nationalism, which had its roots in the economically more isolated peasantry of the northern Ukraine, and became a force in the Civil War. In terms of ethnic composition, in 1917–1925 Ukrainians constituted 80–83 percent of the overall population of the Ukraine. At the same time, the non-Ukrainian population predominated in the big cities and in the Donbass. The population of the Makhnovist territory was notably mixed. Here Ukrainians (“Little Russians”) and Russians (“Great Russians”) lived side by side, and their villages were interspersed with German, Jewish and Greek settlements. The lingua franca of the region was Russian, and a significant proportion of Ukrainians (including Makhno) did not actually speak Ukrainian. Nor did the Left Bank benefit from the circulation of money lent by Jewish moneylenders, since the Jewish population in the settlements was primarily engaged in trade and agriculture. For this reason anti-Semitism, too, was less rife in these parts than in the Right Bank.
The anarchist movement in Ukraine, as in Russia as a whole, originated in the “Populist” or narodnik movement of the 1870s and 1880s. However, in the 1880s most of the narodnik groups moved away from anarchism, or were crushed by the czarist regime. The revival of the anarchist movement in the Russian empire began in 1903. It was then, too, that the first group arose in Nezhin in the Chernigov province. In 1904 the anarcho-communists held their all-Russian conference in Odessa.
During the revolution of 1905–1907 there was a powerful surge in socio-political activity, including the anarchist movement. Its main centers in the Ukraine were Odessa and Ekaterinoslav, but groups were also active in Kiev, Zhitomir and Kamenets-Podolskoe. The anarchists numbered several thousand, the majority being young Jews. Anarchist groups, particularly the anarcho-communists, carried out agitational work and resorted to terrorist acts. In Odessa, Ekaterinoslav and Kiev, the anarchists participated alongside other left-wing groups in the creation of armed detachments. The syndicalist current also began to develop with Yakov Novomirsky’s establishment of the South Russian group of anarcho-syndicalists in 1906. After the revolution was defeated, there was a sharp drop in both the number of organizations, and in their membership.
The revolution of 1905–1907 also affected Gulyai-Pole. On the 22 February 1905, the Kerner factory went on strike. The workers demanded improved working conditions, and the abolition of penalties and overtime. Among the strikers was the young Nestor Makhno. In September 1906 the terrorist Peasant Group of Anarcho-communists (also known as the “Union of Free Grain Growers”) began to operate in Gulyai-Pole. The group was led by Voldemar Antoni, who was associated with the Ekaterinoslav anarchists, and the Semenyut brothers, Aleksandr and Prokopii. There were several different nationalities among the group’s members.
Makhno located the terrorists faster than the police, forced them to accept him into their ranks, and by the 14 October was already participating in a robbery. At the end of 1906 he was arrested for possessing weapons, but then released as a minor. In the course of the year the group carried out four bloodless robberies. Young people in black masks (or with faces smeared in mud) demanded money “for the starving” or simply money as such, introducing themselves as anarchists and disappearing afterwards. Their gains amounted to around 1,000 rubles. On the 27 August 1907, Makhno was involved in an exchange of fire with the police. A short while later he was identified and arrested. But his friends did not abandon him. Under pressure from the terrorist group, the peasant who had identified Makhno withdrew his testimony.
However, by 1907 the Gulyai-Pole “Robin Hood” gang was operating under police surveillance. The valiant custodians of law and order were in no hurry to arrest young people with weapons, allowing them instead to become more deeply involved with crime in order to create a stronger case against them, according to a Soviet researcher, G. Novopolin, who studied the documents from the trial.
The role of Sherlock Holmes in unmasking the Gulyai-Pole group fell to the resident constable in Gulyai-Pole, Karachentsev. In order to discover who was involved, the village detective put to use the usual Russian weapon—provocation. Karachentsev’s agents infiltrated the group, took part in its attacks, and informed him of the group’s activities. The police exposed 14 members of the group of terrorists. The terrorists identified one of the police agents—Kushnir—and killed him. But Karachentsev was already on the trail of the disintegrating group. Following the murder on the 28 July 1908, the core of the group was surrounded in Gulyai-Pole, but the anarchists fought their way out and escaped.
After this, the group finally disintegrated and split up; Аntoni went abroad. On the 26 August, Makhno landed up once again in prison. On the 31 December 1908, he tried to escape, but was apprehended. On the 5 January 1910 Prokopii Semenyut attempted to liberate his friends as they were being transported to Ekaterinoslav, but did not succeed (he was prevented by an agent provocateur called Altgauzen). The group’s last act was the murder of constable Karachentsev on 22 November 1909.
On 22 March Makhno, together with his comrades, was sentenced to death by hanging “for membership of a malicious gang, created for the purpose of committing robbery, for two attacks on a dwelling house and an attempted attack of the same nature”. At this point Makhno had not participated in any murder, and according to peacetime laws should have been sentenced to hard labor. But a national “anti-terrorist operation” was under way, and human life was cheap.
Makhno waited for the sentence to be carried out. He was young and full of energy, and expected to be hanged. He did not know that the bureaucracy was meanwhile still debating his fate. The decisive factor was that his parents had at some point falsified his date of birth—he was still considered a minor. This allowed the authorities also to take into account the fact that his actual crimes had not involved murder. As a result the death penalty in Makhno’s case was commuted to hard labor in perpetuity.
The February revolution of 1917, which represented the start of the Great Russian Revolution, led to a fresh upsurge in the anarchist movement in the Ukraine. The movement reestablished its 1905 position, but against the background of the dramatic political struggle the influence of the anarchists outside the limits of the Makhnovist territory was not great. The Central Rada (“council”)—an assembly of the main political groupings—became the most influential force in the Ukraine. The leading parties within it were the Ukrainian social democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), who stood for the autonomy of Ukraine within the framework of a larger Russian realm.
In March 1917, the former terrorist Makhno returned from penal servitude to his native Gulyai-Pole. Having won his laurels as a martyr and fighter against the regime, Makhno became a figure of authority, a local notable. March 1917 was a period of euphoria. The revolutionaries who had returned from prison, exile or emigration became unbelievably popular. But few succeeded in turning this initial enthusiasm into lasting mass support. To achieve this it was necessary to establish a solid organization. Makhno set about doing this.
Makhno gathered his old acquaintances and revived the group of anarcho-communists. Like all other anarchists at the time, the group was influenced by the ideas of Piotr Kropotkin, albeit in an extremely abstract and simplified form. Until August 1917 Makhno also cooperated with the district authorities in preparing the elections to the zemstvos, and even in imposing the taxes that were such anathema to the anarchists.
On the 28–29 March, Маkhno was elected to the executive committee of the Peasant Union in the local volost, and became its head. There were no other revolutionaries with his authority in the small town. The Peasant Union paralyzed the Social Committee—which supported the Provisional Government—seized its sections and, in effect, turned itself into the highest organ of power in the region: the Gulyai-Pole soviet or council (formally known as the Peasant Union until August 1917). Delegates were sent to the soviet from relatively compact groups of the population, which made it easier to relate to voters. But it was the executive committee that took care of day-to-day affairs, dealing with everything ranging from major political questions, to the recovery of a lost cow.
The anarcho-communists’ system of power rested on a network of mass organizations that supported Makhno’s policies: unions, factory committees, farm laborers’ committees, and popular gatherings (skhody-sobraniya). The latter represented a kind of permanent referendum that allowed the anarchist leaders to check on the mood of the population. They also played the role of civil courts, resolving disputes among citizens. Маkhno loved speaking at these gatherings. He was a brilliant speaker, mixing vernacular speech with scientific terms that he had picked up in prison. The inhabitants of Gulyai-Pole, who were not spoiled by visits from other orators, listened with pleasure to his Russian speech (in a southern dialect close to Ukrainian).
Following talks between the Central Rada and the Russian Provisional Government, the borders of the autonomous Ukraine had been defined and confirmed in the “Provisional Instruction to the General Secretariat of the Central Rada”, issued by the Provisional Government on 17 August 1917. In this Instruction the territory of Ukraine was limited to the Kiev, Volyn, Poltava, Podolsk and Chernigov provinces.
Until November 1917 the Ekaterinoslav province, to which GulyaiPole belonged, was not considered part of the new Ukraine. Маkhno rejected the right of the Provisional Government to define the borders of Ukraine, not because he was eager to come under the control of the Central Rada at Kiev, but because as an anarchist, he rejected state power and state borders as such.
The main task that the peasantry set was not national, but social, specifically, the redistribution of land. Following their accession to power, the Makhnovists seized the land registry documents and undertook an inventory of estates—this was in striking contrast to earlier peasant movements, which burned the land registries. The peasants wanted to organize the distribution of land owned by the gentry and kulaks. Makhno put this demand to the first congress of district soviets which took place in Gulyai-Pole. The anarchist movement’s agrarian program proposed to liquidate the landowners’ and kulaks’ ownership “of land and the luxury estates which they are unable to attend to by their own labor”. The landowners and kulaks would maintain the right to cultivate land, but only by their own efforts. A further proposal to unite peasants into communes was not successful.
Already by June that year, the peasants had ceased to pay rent, thereby violating the orders of government officials. But they did not succeed in bringing about immediate agrarian reform. First they were delayed by a sharp conflict with B.K. Mikhno, the regional (uezdny) commissar of the Provisional Government, and then they were held up by the harvest. In order not to disrupt the production process, the peasants postponed the main reforms until the spring: “on this occasion they confined themselves to not paying rent to the landowners, putting the land under the management of land committees, and appointing guards, in the form of farm managers, to keep watch until the spring over both livestock and equipment so that the landowners would not be able to sell them off”.
This reform by itself soon yielded results: the peasants no longer worked on the former landowners’ fields out of fear, but out of conscience, and brought in the biggest harvest in the province. And Makhno went further. On 25 September the congress of soviets and peasant organizations in Gulyai-Pole announced the confiscation of gentry-owned land, and its transfer to common ownership. Thus Makhno resolved “the land question” before the decrees of the AllRussian Congress of Soviets or the laws of the Constituent Assembly. The leader of the SRs, Viktor Chernov, had made virtually the same proposals. But he was unable to convince the Provisional Government to agree to his approach, whereas the Makhno soviet succeeded in implementing it.
After the Kornilov revolt, which deprived the Provisional Government of authority in the district as the central authorities were unable to prevent counter-revolutionary actions, the Makhnovists created their own Committee to Defend the Revolution under the auspices of the soviet and confiscated “kulak” weapons for use by their own detachment. Makhno, of course, headed the committee. The new organ was supposed to be in charge of defending the district from any outside interference. The Committee called a congress of soviets of the GulyaiPole district, which supported Makhno’s actions. Thus, Gulyai-Pole became the capital of the surrounding villages.
The creation of an independent center of power in the Gulyai-Pole district was treated with hostility by the official district administration. The Gulyai-Pole district had long been a source of irritation to commissar Mikhno. The anarcho-communists had liquidated the Social Committee, and in effect removed the district from the jurisdiction of the regional authorities. Mikhno threatened to organize a punitive expedition to the district. But the Makhnovischna were armed and ready to repulse any attack. At the same time they decided to attack the enemy from the rear: an agitation team was sent to the regional center of Aleksandrovsk to campaign against Mikhno. The workers supported the people of Gulyai-Pole by going on strike, thereby paralyzing the work of that regional commissar, who was forced to leave the anarchist district alone.
In September, Makhno encountered competition in the struggle for the “revolutionary masses” from a personage even more radical than himself. The well-known anarchist Mariya Girgorevna “Marusya” Nikiforovna arrived in Gulyai-Pole. By this time the 32-year-old Marusya (as she was called by her associates) was even more famous than Makhno himself. She had taken part in the stormy events in Petrograd, and then returned to her native region:
In Aleksandrovsk and neighboring Ekaterinoslav she began to set up anarchist workers’ military detachments of the [anarchist] Black Guard. Soon she would succeed in organizing such detachments in Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson, Kamensk, Melitopol, Yuzovsk, Nikopol, Gorlovka ...
If even half this information is true, Marusya represented a highly influential figure. Her Black Guards carried out raids on factory owners and military units, replenishing their ammunition, and then financing workers’ organizations. Thus Marusya’s popularity grew.
Makhno, who was used to negotiating with the bourgeoisie (on his own terms, of course), but not (any more) to organizing raids, did not approve of Nikiforova’s methods, which were aimed at provoking a confrontation with the Alekandrov authorities. Marusya even incited some of the Makhnovists to attack a military unit in Orekhov. The operation was successful: the attackers destroyed a subdivision of the Preobrazhenskii regiment, killing their officers and seizing their arms. Makhno was outraged by Marusya’s irresponsibility. At this point he was trying to avoid armed confrontation, and to confine himself to threats.
Marusya was meanwhile forced to leave Gulyai-Pole and move on to Aleksandrovsk, where she was soon arrested by the supporters of Provisional Government. The Makhnovists, and the Aleksandrov workers, were obliged to rescue the extremist, threatening raids and a strike. When a crowd of workers arrived at the prison gates, Marusya was released. The members of the Aleksandrov soviet were reelected to the benefit of the Left, the government commissar was frightened, and the Aleksandrov officials ceased to threaten Gulyai-Pole.
In short, Makhno had established soviet power in his territory earlier than Lenin, and was ahead of him in building a new society. Makhno’s initiatives also exceeded those of the October Revolution: workers’ control, self-management in the collectives and workers’ organizations, cooperation, and attempts to regulate the exchange of products outside of the collapsing market. The soviet system was viewed by the Makhnovists not as a hierarchical governing force, a state, but as the guarantor of the full rights of workers’ and peasants’ organizations.
On the 26 October 1917, in the course of the upheavals in Petrograd, “all power to the soviets” was declared. For this reason the Makhnovists took a favorable view of the October Revolution, and even proposed votes for the Bolsheviks and SRs in the elections to the Constituent Assembly. However, unlike the Bolsheviks, Makhno spoke out against economic and political centralism and against privileges for workers and civil servants.
In Kiev there were clashes between the Bolsheviks and supporters of the Provisional Government; as a result on the 1 November, power in Kiev was transferred to the Central Rada. In its third “Universal” (or official proclamation) on the 7 November, the Rada confirmed that it was aiming to secure the autonomy of Ukraine as part of a federal Russia. The Universal also declared that the Kiev, Chernigov, Volyn, Podolsk, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav, and Kherson provinces and the Materikovaya part of the Tavrichesakaya province (not including the Crimea), would be part of Ukraine. Thus, the Rada’s territorial claims were greater than before.
Makhno became engrossed in this new political reality. He had struggled bitterly for the power of the soviets in these areas even before the October Revolution, and felt that now there was no time to lose. At issue was the question of which sphere of influence the Left Bank of the Dnepr would come under: soviet power, the Rada’s Ukrainian government, or the “White” counter-revolutionaries.
Makhno took part in reconciling the Ekaterinoslav soviet and the mutinous Georgiev cavaliers who protested against soviet power, and sought by every means possible to prevent the Central Rada from extending its influence. In Gulyai-Pole there was a well-organized group of supporters of the new Ukrainian state, who held their meetings in the town. Маkhno gathered the peasants of the region at a Regional Congress of Soviets, which passed a resolution declaring “Death to the Central Rada”. The Ukrainian nationalists were silenced for a time.
At the same time, the district came under threat from an even more dangerous quarter: several echelons of Cossacks had returned from the Front. If they got through to the Don at this point, the forces of General Alexey Maximovich Kaledin, head of the Don Cossack Whites, would have been given a significant military boost.
Taking a short-term perspective, Makhno could have simply let the Cossacks through to the Don. But he needed to take a longer-term view, and his Congress of Soviets called for a detachment to be formed to fight the Cossacks. This was a “free battalion” led by the Makhno brothers, with Savva as the commander, and Nestor as the political organizer. This was the first time Nestor Makhno was to put himself forward as a military leader. His future reputation for military leadership had not yet been established when the Makhnovist forces seized the approaches to the Kichkasskii bridge across the Dnepr. In a brief battle on 8 January 1918, the Makhnovists, in alliance with the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs, halted and disarmed the Cossacks.45 The Cossacks themselves were not, in any case, eager for battle. What they wanted most was to get home, and it did not matter all that much whether they did so with arms, or without. The outcome of this battle complicated Kaledin’s position.
Already on December 4, Soviet Russia declared that it was prepared to recognize the Ukraine’s independence, but not the authority of the Central Rada, since the latter did not have the authority to represent the Ukrainian people. Who, then, did have that authority? At the elections to the Constituent Assembly the parties of the Central Rada, the majority of whom were socialists, won a significant majority of the votes. But that left out a quarter of the voters—those living in the big cities and on the Left Bank of the Dnepr. The Central Rada laid claim to a broad swathe of territory extending all the way to the Donbass and Kursk, where its power had never been recognized. By laying claim to the eastern territories, the Central Rada had also claimed the population of the Left Bank, which was even more indifferent to the nationalist idea than the inhabitants of the Right Bank.
On 3–5 December the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs suffered a defeat at the 1st Congress of Ukrainian Soviets, and withdrew from it. Blaming the Central Rada for not having admitted some of the delegates from the Eastern Ukraine to the Congress, they gathered in Kharkov and declared a Ukrainian Soviet Republic. On 8 November, detachments from Russia and the Donbass (which was both Russian and Ukrainian, but in January had created its own Donetsk-Krivorosh Soviet Republic) came to their aid. Now, having got “their” own Ukraine, the Bolsheviks also had to recognize that “their” eastern districts, with a mixed population, belonged to the Ukraine. Having collided with the Soviets over their extended sphere of influence, the Central Rada on 9 January 1918, declared the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic.
Nowadays, the war that ensued between the Ukrainian nationalists and the Bolsheviks is referred to by the former as “Russia’s aggression”. But inhabitants of Ukraine also marched in the Red columns; it was they who rose up for the power of the soviets. Many were not interested in a national state as such, but in its social c ontent—in what it would give to the peasant and worker. Although in its Universal the Central Rada had declared the right of the peasants to the land, like the Provisional Government, it delayed in actually instituting agrarian reform.
For Makhno—as for the majority of the inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine, including Kiev and Odessa, where the majority spoke Russian—the nationalist Ukrainian government was not theirs. For them the war against the Central Rada, and the other authorities established by the Ukrainian nationalists, was a war against an attempt to tear apart the living fabric of the people by those who were dragging their feet in carrying out socialist transformation. The Central Rada put forward romantic nationalist promises, yet the advance of Soviet troops did not arouse any significant popular opposition. On 8 February 1918 Mikhail Muravev’s Soviet troops took Kiev, and the Central Rada fled to Zhitomir.
But at this point the fate of the Ukraine was being decided not in Kiev, but in Brest. Here, on the 9 December 1917, peace talks began between Russia and the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. On the 18 December 1917, a Central Rada delegation arrived. On the 30th December, the Bolshevik representative Leon Trotsky recognized its authority to participate, in the hope of preventing it from openly transferring its allegiance to the Germans. Nevertheless, in the conditions of heightened conflict, the Central Rada representatives decided to come to a separate agreement with the Central Powers.
This would define the fate of the Ukraine—including those territories that were totally against the Central Rada. Маkhno did not suspect that the fate of his district was now being decided in far-off Brest. On the 9 February 1918, Rada representatives concluded a peace agreement under which the Ukraine undertook to supply Germany with provisions that would alleviate the social crisis in that country, and invited German troops to the Ukraine to oust the supporters of Soviet power. The Ukrainian nationalists had acquired a distinctly pro-German slant, which was maintained right up to the Second World War.
The German representatives were not, however, ready to settle with Russia yet. They demanded that Russia first renounce its rights to Poland, the Caucasus, the Baltic States and Ukraine, whose fate would be decided by Germany and its allies, that Russia pay reparations, and so on. The Bolsheviks could not sign such a peace agreement with German imperialists without changing the principles on which they had come to power.
On the 10th February 1918, Trotsky refused to sign the capitulating peace agreement, and unilaterally announced an end to the state of war, and the demobilization of the army. He calculated that the Germans, exhausted by war, would not be able to attack. However, the Germans immediately pushed the Eastern Front deep into the Russian realm, including the Ukraine. The remnants of the demoralized old army, and detachments of the Red Guard, were unable to halt the Germans. On 3 March 1918, after bitter fights inside the party’s Central Committee, the Bolsheviks were forced to conclude what V.I. Lenin described as the “obscene” Treaty of Brest Litovsk. This effectively ceded the Ukraine and other territories to the control of Germany (or the allied Ottomans).
It is difficult to establish Makhno’s precise attitude to the Treaty. In his memoirs he claims to have said the following: “By concluding this alliance with the monarchists both the Central Rada and the Bolsheviks are preparing death for the revolution and its champions—the revolutionary toilers”. However, we know that during his first alliance with the Bolsheviks (see below) Makhno spoke out against blaming them for colluding with the Germans. Nor did Makhno reproach the Bolshevik leaders for the Brest-Litovsk Treaty during his discussions with them in June 1918.
The Germans’ incursions markedly energized the Central Rada’s supporters in the anarchist district. They attached great hopes to the Germans. The nationalist leader, P. Semenyut, openly threatened the anarchists with physical reprisals once the Germans had arrived. In response, the anarcho-syndicalists, unbeknownst to Makhno (or so he claimed), declared “revolutionary terror” on the nationalists, and killed Semenyut. Gulyai-Pole found itself on the brink of civil war. Hearing what had happened, Makhno applied all his efforts to get the decision on “revolutionary terror” repealed, and to conclude an agreement with the opposition, thereby averting a bloody vendetta. A joint commission was set up with the nationalists to ban assassinations.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian nationalists continued to campaign in the district. At the same time the nationalists took steps to prepare a coup in Gulyai-Pole. They began blackmailing the Jewish community, threatening a pogrom once the Germans arrived. After some hesitation, the Jewish leaders decided to help their sworn enemies in order to prevent such reprisals. “Among the Jews—shopkeepers, hoteliers, manufacturers—a defeatist mood has once again arisen”, claimed M. Goncharok:
The well-to-do leaders of the community demanded that the Jewish population disband their [national] military company. Rank-and-file volunteers, mainly youths from poor families, refused point blank, regarding this as base treachery in relation to the anarchists and peasant volunteer corps who had entrusted them with weapons. Opinions within the company, however, were split.
This social-psychological reconstruction is inaccurate. The supposed split did not happen—the company decided to obey the Jewish community leaders. Meanwhile the Germans, ousting detachments of SRs, Bolsheviks and anarchists, were approaching the Dnepr.
The Makhnovists formed a “free battalion” which joined the Front. As in January, Makhno gave the role of commander to another man, a sailor called Polonskii, reserving himself the role of political leader. Preparing to defend Gulyai-Pole, Makhno headed towards the headquarters of the Red Guard in order to coordinate actions with other detachments. Gulyai-Pole was meanwhile guarded by the Jewish national company under the command of one Taranovskii. On the night of 15–16 April, the company carried out a coup in Gulyai-Pole in favor of the Ukrainian nationalists, and arrested a group of anarchocommunists. At the same time a detachment of nationalists launched a surprise attack on the “free battalion” and disarmed them.
These events caught Makhno unawares. At one blow he had been deprived of military strength and a support base. It is notable that Makhno was not inclined to blame the Jews for what had happened. In his view, rumors of a “Jewish plot” in the Ukraine “would undoubtedly provoke a pogrom and the massacre of poor innocent Jews, constantly persecuted by everyone in Russian and Ukrainian history and never knowing peace to this day”.
Understanding the reasons for the Jewish community’s actions, Makhno, returning later on to the Gulyai-Pole district, spoke out against taking revenge on the participants in the coup—i.e. the Jews; he “convinced the peasants and workers that the Jewish toilers, even those who made up the soldiers of the company and were direct participants in its counter-revolutionary activities—will themselves condemn this shameful act”. And indeed, in 1919, a Jewish national battalion would be formed in the Makhnovist armed forces.
On the 16 April 1918, participants in a demonstration by the citizens of Gulyai-Pole released the anarchists who had been arrested by the plotters. But it was already impossible to organize the defense of the town: the Germans crossed the Dnepr and soon afterwards entered Gulyai-Pole. Together with the nationalists they set about punishing any anarchists who had not managed to escape.
The nationalists’ victory was short-lived, and its hopes in the German forces misplaced. In April 1918, the Germans, along with Ukrainian capitalists and landowners, backed a coup against the Rada and its Republic; this was led by General Pavlo Skoropadsky, who formed the pliant and counter-revolutionary Hetmanate, a dictatorial regime. Skoropadsky instituted grain requisitions and land restorations to the pomeshchiki, provoking a massive popular backlash. The second cycle of Makhnovist activity now began, as the movement played a decisive role in opposing the Germans, the Hetmanate, and the wealthy classes in the Ukraine.
On the 4 July 1918 Мakhno, with the help of the Bolsheviks, returned to his native district and put together a small partizan detachment. On the 22 September this began military operations against the Germans. Makhno’s detachment engaged in its first battle in the village of Dibrivki (Bolshaya Mikhailovka) on 30th September. Joining with the small Shusya detachment, which had earlier fought as partizans here, Makhno and a group of three dozen men succeeded in crushing the Germans’ superior forces. The authority of the new detachment grew in the area, and Makhno himself was given the respectful nickname Batko (“little father”).
The Battle of Dibrivki marked the beginning of a destructive vendetta—as well as the start of a cycle of military victories against the Germans, the Whites and the nationalists. What happened was that the Germans amassed a considerable force, and carried out a demonstrative execution in Dibrivki, which the partizans were unable to prevent. Inhabitants of the surrounding German farms took part in the punitive expedition. In return, the Makhnovists destroyed the farms and killed participants in a punitive action, and, as Аlexey Chubenko recalled:
Haystacks, straw and houses burned so fiercely that in the streets it was as bright as day. The Germans, having stopped firing, ran out of their homes. But our men shot all the menfolk straight away.
Having burned the kulak farms, the rebels, according to Makhno, told the families who had lost their homes: “Go where the Dibrivki peasants, men, women and children ... went, those whom your fathers, sons and husbands either killed or raped or whose huts they burned”. At the same time, after the first outburst of terror Makhno issued an order not to touch Germans who offered no resistance, and when his commander Petrenko destroyed a peaceful German kulak farm, Makhno saw to it that the Germans were paid compensation.
While Makhno stressed the struggle for freedom from foreign powers, he also emphasized his actions had an anti-landowner and anti-kulak nature, including opposition to the Ukrainian elite and the nationalist state. The popular army should, for example, take the opportunity to acquire supplies at the expense of the landowners and kulaks: “I asked the assembled population to say openly where the kulaks lived, people with sheep and cattle, so that we could get two or three sheep from them for soup for our soldiers”.
At this point people’s courts (obshchestvennye sudy) began to operate at peasant gatherings, with authority to decide the fate of the accused. In response to the protests of the anarcho-communist A. Marchenko against this practice, Makhno remarked: “Let him put his sentimentality in his pocket”. As a rule, the Makhnovists released any captured German troops. But they sometimes shot civilian Germans as “spies”, and commonly, officers. The insurgents’ severity towards the kulaks only increased their authority in the eyes of the peasants. Makhno began to base his actions on the numerically strong peasant volunteer corps, which he could draw on for major operations—the core of the Makhnovist army. He would notify them in advance of the meeting place. Interestingly, the enemy knew nothing about this.
When revolution broke out in Germany in November 1918, the German backing for the Hetmanate was shaken. The nationalists regrouped in the Directory, retook Kiev in December and toppled Skoropadsky, and in January 1919 they united the Ukrainian People’s Republic with the separate West Ukrainian People’s Republic. Meanwhile, the extensive Priazove district came under Makhnovist control. On 30 December 1918, the Batko even briefly occupied Ekaterinoslav, one of the biggest cities in Ukraine, but because of conflicts with his Bolshevik allies he was unable to defend the city from Directory head Symon Vasylyovych Petliura’s advancing army.
During this period, Makhno took steps to transform his movement from a destructive peasant uprising to a social revolutionary movement that embodied supreme power in the territory it controlled. But having gained control over a relatively stable swathe of territory, Makhno decided that the time had come to add some proper democratic institutions to the anarcho-military milieu: namely, a Military Revolutionary Soviet (VRS). The constructive work started in 1917 resumed, a conscious effort to create a self-managed anarchist society.
For this purpose the 1st Congress of District Soviets was called on the 23 January 1919 (in the numbering of the 1919 congresses the forums of 1917 were ignored). As in 1917, the Makhno movement regarded the Congresses as the supreme authority. In 1919 three such congresses were held (on the 23 January, 8–12 February, and 10–29 April). Their resolutions, adopted after heated discussions, accorded with anarchist ideas:
In our insurgent struggle we need a united brotherly family of workers and peasants to defend land, truth and freedom. The second district congress of front-line soldiers insistently calls on their peasant and worker comrades to undertake by their own efforts to build a new, free society in their locale, without tyrannical decrees and orders, and in defiance of tyrants and oppressors throughout the world: a society without ruling landowners, without subordinate slaves, without rich or poor.
Delegates to the congress spoke out sharply against “parasitical bureaucrats” who were the source of these “tyrannical decrees”.
Makhno’s staff, who also engaged in cultural and education work, represented an important organ of power, but all their civil (and formally speaking their military) activity was under the control of the executive organ of the congress (the VRS) and a number of educational institutions were established, alongside land redistribution and several cooperative farms. The Bolshevik commander of the Ukrainian Front, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, who visited the district in May 1919, reported: 
Children’s communes and schools are getting going—Gulyai-Pole is one of the most cultured centers in Novorossiya—here there are three secondary educational institutions and so on. Through Makhno’s efforts ten hospitals for the wounded have been opened, a workshop has been organized to repair implements and manufacture locks and equipment.
Children were taught to read and underwent military training, primarily in the form of military games (which were sometimes quite tough).
But the main educational work was carried out not with children but with adults. The VRS’ Kultprosovet (“Culture and Propaganda Council”), which was responsible for enlightenment and agitation work among the population, was staffed by anarchists and Left SRs who had come to the district. Freedom of agitation was also upheld for other left-wing parties, including Bolsheviks, although the anarchists dominated the district ideologically.
Makhno’s conflicts with certain commanders intensified. When the semi-independent commander Fedor Shchus undertook reprisals against German settlers, Makhno responded by arresting him and promised to execute him if it happened again. Shchus, who had only recently demonstrated his independence from Makhno, was no longer capable of withstanding the Batko, whose power in the district at this time was based not only on military strength. “Shchus gave his word not to repeat the murders and swore loyalty to Makhno”, recalled Chubenko. As a result, Makhno succeeded in maintaining solid discipline among his officers. One of Bolshevik leader Lev Kamenev’s assistants recalled Makhno’s style of leadership at an officers’ meeting during a visit to Gulyai-Pole: “At the slightest noise he would threaten the perpetrator: ‘Out with you!’ ”
The first social-political organization to carry out and influence Makhno’s policies was a Union of Anarchists, which arose from a group of anarcho-communists joined by a number of other anarchist groups. Many Makhnovist officers and anarchists who had come to the district joined the Union. Also, prominent activists in the Makhnovists like Grigory Vasilevskii, Boris Veretelnikov, Alexey Marchenko, Petr Gavrilenko,Vasily Kurilenko, Viktor Belash, Trofim Vdovichenko, and others, were anarchists.
Makhno nonetheless had a skeptical attitude towards the anarchist group Nabat (“Alarm”), also known as the Confederation of Anarchist Organizations of the Ukraine: this included leading figures like Vsevolod Mikhailovich Eikhenbaum (known as “Voline”). Nabat united newcomers like Voline with some of the urban Ukrainian anarchists (primarily anarcho-syndicalists) in the autumn of 1918, but evidently it represented only one of the various anarchist groupings. Its claims to the leadership of the Makhno movement were unfounded. Makhno did not regard himself as being bound by the decisions of the Nabat’s April 1918 conference in Elisavetgrad, which were taken in his absence.
It is essential to distinguish the influence of the local anarchists on the development of the movement from that of the urban anarchist newcomers to the region, towards whom the Makhnovists had already developed a skeptical attitude by 1918. However, even here there are some significant exceptions. The most obvious example is Makhno’s comrade in penal servitude, Peter Arshinov (also known “Marin”). According to Isaak Teper:
Marin was in general the only anarchist [anarchist newcomer—AS.] whom Makhno sincerely respected and whose advice he accepted unquestioningly ... He was the only person, as I indicated above, to whom Makhno in general submitted in the full sense of the word.
Arshinov (who had been in jail with Makhno) joined up with him, and together they determined the movement’s ideology. Makhno called his own views anarcho-communist “in Bakunin’s sense”. Later, Makhno proposed the following organization of state and society: “I envisaged such a structure only in the form of a free soviet structure, in which the entire country would be covered by local, completely free, independent, self-governing social organizations of workers”, in contrast to Bolshevik and Soviet state centralism.
In late 1918 a delegation of railway workers visited Makhno. According to Chubenko’s memoirs, the workers
... began asking what they should do in terms of organizing power. Makhno replied that they need to organize a soviet that should be completely independent, i.e. a free soviet, independent of all parties. They then appealed to him for money, since they had no money at all, and needed money to pay the workers, who had received no wages for three weeks. Makhno without saying a word ordered them to be given 20,000 [rubles], and this was done.
In a proclamation on 8 February 1919 Makhno announced the following task: “The building of a genuine Soviet structure in which the soviets, chosen by the workers, will be the servants of the people, executing the laws and decrees that the workers themselves will write at the allUkrainian labor congress”. Thus for the question of Ukrainian independence, the VRS declared in October 1919:
When speaking of Ukrainian independence, we do not mean national independence in Petliura’s sense, but the social independence of workers and peasants. We declare that Ukrainian, and all other, working people have the right to self-determination not as an ‘independent nation’, but as ‘independent workers’.
Dividing up their respective spheres of influence with the Ukrainian nationalists, the Makhnovists had a large amount of territory and peasant support, and came under attack from the Whites. By the beginning of January, the Makhnovists had already absorbed into their ranks several thousand semi-armed insurgents from Priazove, and were suffering from a lack of ammunition and rifles. After several days’ fighting with the Whites they had used up all their ammunition, and the insurgents had been forced back to Gulyai-Pole. They did not want to surrender their “capital”. From 24 January to 4 February bitter battles were fought, with varying success.
Notwithstanding their disagreements with the Bolsheviks, the Makhnovists had no option but to unite with them under these circumstances. The Red Army was the only possible source of arms and ammunition. Already at the beginning of January Makhno told Chubenko: “Maybe we will succeed in uniting with the Red Army, which is rumored to have seized Belgorod and has gone on the offensive along the whole Ukrainian Front. If you run into [the Red Army], form a military alliance with it”. Makhno did not give Chubenko authority to conduct any political talks with the Reds, however, and the Batko’s emissary was thus confined to announcing that “we are all fighting for Soviet power”.
Following talks with Pavel Dybenko on 26 January 1919, the Makhnovists were supplied with ammunition that enabled them to go on the offensive as early as 4 February. By the 17 February, having taken Orekhov and Pologi, the 3rd Brigade of the Makhnovists’ First Dnepr Division, under Dybenko’s command, occupied Bakhmut. Bolshevik rifles enabled the Makhnovists to arm the peasant reinforcements, who had been waiting in the wings. As a result, the 3rd brigade of the First Dnepr division grew so rapidly that it outnumbered both the original Division and the 2nd Ukrainian army in which the brigade had earlier fought.
Whereas in January Makhno had had around 400 troops, by the beginning of March he had a thousand, by mid-March 5,000, and by April 15—20,000. Having thus carried out this voluntary mobilization, the Makhno forces launched their offensive to the south and to the east. After covering more than 100 km over a period of a monthand-a-half, the Makhnovists captured Berdyansk. Lieutenant-General Anton Ivanovich Denikin’s White western bastion was destroyed. At the same time, other Makhnovist units moved the Front a similar distance to the east, entering Volnovakha. The Makhnovists seized a special train from the Whites, loaded with 1,467 metric tons of bread, and sent it on to the starving workers of Moscow and Petrograd.
The Makhnovists’ insurgent army was called upon to defend the population and social structures not only from external threats, but from internal threats in the district. Periodic outbursts of lawlessness were, in general, extremely common in this period of the revolution: “In the city robbery, drunkenness, and debauchery are beginning to sweep over the army”, declared V. Aussem, commander of a military group within the Red Army, following the occupation of Kharkov. And in another episode: “At the end of April the regiment was waiting at the Teterev station, where Red Army soldiers committed numerous excesses without punishment—they robbed and beat the passengers unmercifully and killed several Jews”, recalled Antonov-Ovseenko, describing the exploits of the 9th regiment of the Red Army.
During the revolutionary period, large numbers of civilian Jews were killed in pogroms across the former Russian Empire, including the Ukraine. There were a number of pogroms in Directorate territory (leading the Ukrainian anarchist Jew Sholom Schwartzbard to assassinate Petliura in revenge in Paris in 1926). Here it is appropriate to mention a fragment of conversation between a Ukrainian People’s Commissar, A. Zatoniskii, and Red Army soldiers whom he was seeking to persuade not to turn towards Kiev in order to “get even with the Cheka and the Commune”: “Finally one quite elderly man asked whether ‘it is true that Rakovskii is a Jew, since they say that earlier the Bolsheviks were in control, but now the Jews had established the new communist Rakovskii government.’ I assured him that comrade Rakovskii is of the same orthodox lineage as the Communists—they are all Bolsheviks ..”. On this occasion his argument was persuasive. But we know that the Red Army participated in numerous pogroms against the Jews.
Anti-Semitism was also rife among a significant section of the Whites. If Chubenko is to be believed, the ataman Andrey Shkuro, attempting to get Makhno on his side, wrote to him: “After all you beat up the commissars anyway, and we beat up the commissars, you beat up the Jews and we beat up the Jews, so we’ve no reason to fight about that ..”. Indeed, supporters of the Whites also wrote about their anti-Semitism and pogroms “We don’t relate to the ‘Yids’, just as they don’t relate to the ‘bourgeoisie’. They shout: ‘Death to the bourgeoisie’, and we answer: ‘Beat up the Yids’ ”. (The Ukrainian atamans were autonomous paramilitary leaders, who easily shifted from nationalist yellow and blue flags, to red banners, or black, and back).
As far as the revolutionary troops are concerned, the outbreaks of lawlessness among soldiers, which were often anti-Semitic, can be explained by the peculiar psychological situation of soldiers in 1918–19. They secured power for the various parties, and regarded themselves as entitled to “impose order” when necessary. This power engendered a feeling that everything was permitted, while the endless interruptions in provisions and wages gave rise to a sense that the authorities were ungrateful. And here, the situation of social catastrophe, marginalization and radicalism brought to the surface dark anti-Semitic instincts, and fostered the urge to commit pogroms.
Against this background the Makhnovist territory represented a relatively peaceful model. The fact that the Makhnovist army consisted of local peasants constituted a serious obstacle to any lawlessness in the heartland of the movement. The territory was also relatively safe in terms of Jewish pogroms. In general, anti-Semitism was weaker in Priazove than in the Right Bank Ukraine. Moreover, the slightest manifestations of anti-Semitism were severely punished by the Makhnovists. As mentioned above, a Jewish national detachment fought with the Makhno troops. While most members of the Makhnovist forces were ethnic Ukrainians, the movement included Greeks, Caucasians and other groups, and it appealed to the working Cossacks to join up.
The one documented instance of a Makhnovist pogrom—in the Jewish colony of Gorkaya on the night of 11th–12th May—led to a thorough investigation and the execution of the guilty parties. A speaker at the investigating commission in Mogil characterized the incident as “a rabid, bloody outburst by half-mad people who had lost their conscience. After this there were no more instances of pogroms on the territory controlled by the Makhnovists, a point well-established in the literature.
As early as January 1919 Makhno himself and his officers took part in savage killings—although arguably not of the systematic nature to be found in territory controlled by other regimes. But after that such reprisals against the peaceful population ceased for a long time. The Makhnovists continued to kill prisoners, as did all the warring armies in the region. The Whites hung captured Makhnovists, and the Makhnovists beheaded captured Whites. The mutual hatred between “peasant” and “gentry” civilizations, based on a cultural rift that went back to the time of Peter the Great, bubbled up to the surface in the bloody carnage of the civil war. The political forces of Russia and Ukraine could not resolve this age-old conflict in any other way, and now the participants in the tragedy were obliged to act with measures adequate to the situation, and notions inherited from their ancestors about the justice of revenge.
Subsequently Makhno came to feel oppressed by this side of the revolution, and he wrote of the harshness of the civil war: “In this harsh struggle the moral aspects of the aim we were pursuing would inevitably be deformed and would appear distorted to everyone until such time as the struggle we undertook was recognized by the whole population as their struggle and until it began to develop and be preserved directly by themselves”.
In the spring of 1919, the first union between the Makhno movement and the central Soviet government entered a state of crisis. The Makhnovists defended their vision of free soviet power, while the Bolsheviks looked on these peasant fellow-travelers with mistrust. The peasants were disappointed: the communists refused to hand over to them the extensive lands owned by the sugar refineries, turning them into state farms (sovkhozy). Then, on the 13th April a system of food requisitions was imposed upon the peasantry.
In Bolshevik-held territory, national conflicts also played a role: the new communist bureaucracy was drawn for the most part from the urban population, the majority being Russians and Jews. Jews were particularly active, since in the Russian empire they had been barred from state jobs. The revolution opened up amazing career opportunities that would have been unthinkable in the past. Encountering an unaccustomedly large number of Jews in their capacity as executors of decisions made by the communist government, the peasants easily decided that “The commune is a realm of Yids”. Many peasant uprisings broke out in spring 1919, directed not against soviet power as such, but against the Bolsheviks, and as a rule were anti-Semitic.
A further cause of the increasing mutual mistrust between the communists and anarchists was afforded by the ataman Nikifor Grigorev, who on the 6 May unleashed a revolt in Right Bank Ukraine. On the 4 May Grigorev’s men (then part of the Red Army) launched pogroms against Jews and Bolshevik commissars. The leadership asked Grigorev immediately to put an end to the situation. The ataman was faced with a difficult choice: either to continue cooperating with the Bolsheviks (whom part of his army had already turned against), or to maintain unity in the army through an uprising against the Bolsheviks (with whom he, too, had no sympathy). After some hesitation, he decided to side with his soldiers. On the eve of Grigorev’s revolt a representative of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Ya. Gamarnik, reported that Grigorev’s situation was much more favorable than Makhno’s.
On the 8 May, Grigorev called in a Universal for an uprising and the creation of a new Soviet Republic in the Ukraine through reelection of all soviets on the basis of a system of national government, in which the Ukrainians would get 80 percent of seats, the Jews 5 percent, and the rest 15 percent. But this was just the theory, and in practice the Grigorevists killed Russians and Jews in their thousands. Sixteen thousand Grigorevists dispersed in different directions, which dissipated their resources, and also extended the scope of the uprising almost to the Right Bank (Zeleny and other atamans had already been fighting further north since April). The rebels occupied Aleksandriya, Kremenchug, Cherkassy, Uman, Elisavetgrad and Ekaterinoslav, thus approaching Makhno’s core territory in earnest.
The Bolsheviks were obliged to urgently deploy their forces against the developing “Grigorev front”. The anarchists fought on their side—in particular with the (anarchist) sailor Anatoli Zhelezniakov’s Red Army armored train—although they were increasingly critical of Bolshevik policies. At the same time, however, a group of Red Army soldiers who had been deployed against Grigorev began discussing whether they should join up with the ataman.
On the 14–15 May, the Bolsheviks launched a counter-attack from Kiev, Odessa and Poltava, threatening Grigorev’s scattered forces. In the second half of May, all the towns Grigorev had seized were cleared of his men. One can agree with Grigorev’s biographer, Viktor Savchenko, that “Grigorev proved to have no talent as an officer, lacking as he did the ability either to plan a military operation or to predict the consequences of his actions, and being moreover in a permanent state of anti-Semitic rage”.
The main threat posed by the Grigorev uprising lay in the fact that many Ukrainians within the Red Army moved over to his side. At this point, however, what the Bolsheviks feared most was a lack of control over Makhno. Kamenev clearly distrusted Makhno, to whom he sent a telegram, which insisted that in this “decisive moment” he must “Inform me immediately of the disposition of your troops and issue a proclamation against Grigorev ... I will regard failure to answer as a declaration of war”. Kamenev’s attempt to exploit the extreme situation to force Makhno to put his trust unconditionally in the central authorities was unsuccessful. The Batko answered ambiguously: “The honor and dignity of revolutionaries oblige us to remain true to the revolution and the people, and Grigorev’s outburst against the Bolsheviks in the battle for power cannot force us to abandon the front” against the Whites.
On the 12th of May, a Makhnovist military congress was held, bringing together the commanding officers and representatives of the various units and the political leadership of the Makhno movement, in order to decide on their strategy vis-à-vis Grigorev. According to V. Belash, Makhno made the following statement: 
The Bolshevik government of Ukraine has appointed itself the guardian of the workers. It has laid its hands on all the wealth of the country and disposes of it as if it were government property. The Party bureaucracy, once more hanging a privileged upper class around our necks, tyrannizes the people. They scoff at the peasants, usurp the rights of the workers, and do not allow the insurgents to breathe. The efforts by the Bolshevik command to humiliate us and Grigorev’s men, the tyranny of the Cheka [the Bolshevik’s All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage—A.S.] against anarchist and SR organizations, all speak of a return to the despotism of the past.
(The military staff, in fact, sent a message to Kamenev complaining of the emergence of a party dictatorship).
Yet Grigorev took a nationalist position that was alien to the Makhnovists, and the congress decided “immediately to take up armed resistance against Grigorev” pending more information, and meanwhile “to maintain friendly relations with the Bolsheviks”. This meeting “on the quiet” also took the decision to expand the Makhnovist 3rd brigade into a division and (with Makhno’s and Antonov-Ovseenko’s agreement) to begin talks with the Soviet government on according autonomous status to the Mariupol, Berdyansk, Melitopol, Aleksandrov, Pavlograd and Bakhmut districts—in other words, to the Makhno territory and its immediate periphery.
At the same time, Makhno sent his emissaries to the area of the Grigorev mutiny in order to clarify the situation, and, if possible, subvert his forces. This was misconstrued as an attempted to form an alliance with Grigorev; the emissaries were arrested as spies by the Bolsheviks, which meant that the Makhnovists’ final decision on strategy towards Grigorev was postponed until the end of May.
Makhno’s emissaries were, however, released, and were able to acquaint themselves with and report on the results of Grigorev’s raids: the bodies of the victims of Jewish pogroms. At the same time Makhno read Grigorev’s Universal, which struck him as chauvinistic. Makhno then issued a proclamation, “Who is Grigorev”, which stated: 
Brothers! Surely you must hear in these words the somber call for a Jewish pogrom! Surely you can feel Ataman Grigorev’s attempts to tear apart the living brotherly connection between the revolution in Ukraine and the revolution in Russia? We are convinced that the healthy intuition of the revolutionaries will tell them [soldiers who joined with Grigorev’s troops—AS] that Grigorev has duped them and that they will leave him once more under the banner of the revolution.
Makhno went on to say that:
We have to say that the reasons behind the emergence of Grigorev’s whole movement lie not only in Grigorev himself ... Any opposition or protest, indeed any independent initiative has been crushed by the extraordinary commissions ... this has engendered bitterness and protest among the masses and a hostile attitude to the existing order. Grigorev exploited this in his adventure ... we demand that the communist party answer for the Grigorev movement.
The local anarchist press was even more categorical: “It’s no secret to anyone”, wrote Ya. Alyi in Nabat, “that all the activities of the Bolshevik party are aimed solely at keeping power in their party’s hands and not giving any other tendencies the chance to propagate their ideas ..”. The commissars “through their clumsiness and their imperious style have set the insurgents against the Bolsheviks and handed a trump card to the Black Hundreds” and “Only the clumsy and anti-revolutionary policies of the Bolsheviks could have given this opportunity to Grigorev and his company to exploit the dissatisfaction of the masses and lead them into these black, treacherous deeds”.
Makhno’s statement against Grigorev could not alter the Bolshevik leadership’s position with regard to the anarchists. The transformation of his 3rd brigade into a division further aggravated relations between the two parties. The Makhnovist army represented a foreign body practically within the Red Army, and it is not surprising that, by February 1919, Trotsky was demanding that it be reorganized on the model of the other Red units. Makhno replied boldly: 
The autocrat Trotsky has ordered us to disarm the Insurgent Army of Ukraine, an army created by the peasants themselves, for he understands very well that so long as the peasants have their own army, he will never succeed in forcing the Ukrainian working people to dance to his tune. The Insurgent Army, not wishing to spill fraternal blood, avoiding clashes with the Red Army, but submitting only to the will of the workers, will stand guard over the interest of the workers and lay down arms only on the orders of the free all-Ukrainian Congress of Labor through which the workers themselves will express their will.
Conflicts between the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks grew. The Makhnovist congresses criticized Bolshevik policies, while the communist leaders demanded an end to the movement’s independence. Supplies to the Makhnovists were stopped, putting the front at risk. Bolshevik propaganda reported the Makhnovists’ poor state of battle readiness, although later the army commander Antonov-Ovseenko wrote: “above all the facts bear witness that statements about the weakness of the most vulnerable place—the district of Gulyai-Pole, Berdyansk—are untrue. On the contrary, precisely this corner turned out to be the liveliest on the whole Southern Front (according to the April–May reports). And this is not of course because we were better organized and equipped in military terms but because the troops here were directly defending their own homes”.
Makhno’s decision to transform his excessively swollen brigade into a division was construed by the Bolsheviks as a lack of discipline, and their Southern Front commanders finally took the decision to crush the Makhnovists. The Bolsheviks clearly overestimated their own strength, all the more so since it was precisely at this point that Denikin’s forces launched an attack. They struck the junction of the Makhnovists and the Red Army just at the moment that the Bolsheviks were attacking the Makhnovist rear. To resist the pressure on both fronts was impossible.
On 6 June 1919 Makhno sent a telegram to the Bolshevik leadership, stepping down from his position in an attempt to avert conflict, and asking that “a good military commander who, having acquainted himself through me with our business here, would be able to receive from me the command of the division”. On the 9 June he telegraphed Lenin, repeating the offer and complaining that “the Central Government regards all insurgency as incompatible with its governmental activity”, and had set itself on a path that would “lead with fateful inevitability to the creation of a special internal front, on both sides of which will be the working masses who believe in the revolution ... an enormous and never-to-be-forgiven crime before the working people”.
The Bolsheviks attempted to arrest Makhno, but with a small detachment he evaded his pursuers. The Cheka then shot some of the Batko’s staff, including their own envoy, chief of staff Ozerov. Recognizing that this was the end for his staff, Makhno embarked on a partizan war in the rear of the Reds, who had launched a military campaign against the Makhnovist region.
Makhno seems to have tried to keep his distance from the rear of the Red Army in order not to hinder unduly their defense against Denikin. According to the memoirs of Voline (who joined Makhno’s army and became head of the culture and enlightenment commission of the VRS), Makhno said that ‘Our main enemy, comrade peasants, is Denikin. The communists after all are still revolutionaries”. But he added: “We’ll be able to settle our scores with them later”.
Nevertheless, on 12th June Makhno unsuccessfully attacked Elizavetgrad, which was occupied by the Red Army. On the following day, the Makhnovists encountered the remnants of Grigorev’s detachments. The first encounter left no doubt as to Grigorev’s intentions: “When Grigorev said ... do you have any Yids, somebody answered that we did.
He declared: ‘then we’ll beat them up’”, recalled Chubenko. United on the need to fight both the Bolsheviks and Petliura’s men, the ataman could not agree on the question of the Whites: “Makhno said that we would beat up Denikin. Grigorev objected to this ... he had not yet seen Denikin and was therefore not planning to fight him”.
To this Makhno made cautious objections, implying that he had only slight disagreements with the Grigorev Universal. Makhno’s actions were explained at a meeting of his staff, discussing their strategy in relation to Grigorev: 
Makhno started saying that, come what may, we had to unite, since we didn’t yet know what kind of people he had, and we would always be able to shoot Grigorev. We needed to capture his people: they were innocent victims, so that come what may we had to unite.
Makhno succeeded in convincing his staff: the need for more people was obvious, and the prospect of eventually liquidating Grigorev reassured those who opposed any compromise with this perpetrator of pogroms. Grigorev became a Makhnovist commander (Makhno as the chair of the VRS was formally his superior) but his actions soon showed that such a union would discredit the Makhnovists.
On the 27 June, at a meeting where Grigorev was surrounded by Makhnovist officers, Chubenko (according to a pre-arranged plan) launched an indictment. “First I told him that he was encouraging the bourgeoisie: when he took hay from the kulaks, he would pay money for it, but when he took it from the poor and they came to him begging, since this was their last hope, he drove them away ... Then I reminded him how he had shot a Makhnovist for grabbing an onion from a priest and swearing at the priest”. It was typical that Grigorev should have executed someone for insulting a priest, while Makhno executed for murdering the Jews. However, the main accusation was that Grigorev had refused to attack the Whites who had occupied Pletenyi Tashlyk. The ataman attempted to argue but, having understood where all this was leading, seized his gun. The Makhnovists already had their pistols ready and Grigorev was killed.
It seemed that Makhno was fulfilling his plan in relation to Grigorev and his men. They were disarmed, and after appropriate campaigning work incorporated into the Makhnovist detachment. With a sense of a duty fulfilled, Makhno sent a telegram into the ether: “To everyone, everyone, everyone. Copy to Moscow, the Kremlin. We have killed the well-known ataman Grigorev. Signed—Makhno”. While dispatching this telegram to the Kremlin, Makhno also issued a proclamation concerning the assassination of Grigorev, in which he said: “We have the hope that after this there won’t be anyone to sanction pogroms against the Jews ... but that the working people will honorably take a stand [against enemies] such as Denikin ... and against the Bolshevik communists, who are introducing a dictatorship”. On the 5 August, Makhno published a proclamation stating that: 
Every revolutionary insurgent should remember that all people of the wealthy bourgeois class, irrespective of whether they are Russians, Jews, Ukrainians or any other nationality, are both his personal enemies and enemies of the people. Those who protect the unjust bourgeois order, i.e. Soviet commissars, members of the punitive detachments, extraordinary commissions who drive around the towns and villages and torture working people who don’t wish to submit to their tyrannical dictatorship.
Every insurgent is under obligation to arrest representatives of these punitive detachments, extraordinary commissions and other organs for enslaving and persecuting the people, and dispatch them to army headquarters, and in case of resistance to shoot them on the spot. But those guilty of using force against peaceful workers, regardless of their nationality, will succumb to a shameful death unworthy of a revolutionary insurgent.
However, it proved impossible to overcome the anti-Semitism of Grigorev’s men, and soon Makhno was forced to dismiss these extra troops. He had to find another way to replenish his troops. Under pressure from Denikin, the Bolsheviks were forced to retreat from Ukraine. But the soldiers themselves did not want to retreat to Russia. On the 5 August those units that had been left under the command of the Bolsheviks rejoined Makhno. The Batko was once again in charge of an army of thousands.
By late September, the Makhnovists’ situation had become critical. Denikin’s superior forces pursued them through the entire Ukraine, pushing them into the Uman district where Petliura’s forces had their stronghold. The local population did not support the Makhnovists, who were strangers to these parts. Progress was impeded by the caravan of wounded men. In these circumstances, Makhno entered a temporary alliance with Petliura, who was also fighting Denikin. Having transferred the wounded to his apparent ally (later Petliura, breaking his agreement with Makhno, handed them to the Whites), the Makhnovists turned back and attacked the units of Deniken’s Voluntary Army that had been pursuing them.
The sudden strike delivered by the Makhnovists at Peregonovka on the 26–27 September was shattering. One of the enemy’s regiments was captured, two fully destroyed. The Makhnovist army broke into the rear of Denikin’s army, and moved through the entire Ukraine in three columns in the direction of the Gulyai-Pole district. “Operations against Makhno were extremely difficult. Makhno’s cavalry was particularly effective, being at first incredibly elusive; it often attacked our wagons, would appear in the rear and so on”. In general “the Makhnovist ‘troops’ differ from the Bolsheviks in their military skill and fortitude”, recounted Colonel Dubego, head of staff of the Whites’ 4th division. Denikin’s headquarters at Taganrog now came under threat. The infrastructure of the Voluntary Army was destroyed, which hampered Denikin’s efforts to move north towards Moscow. He was forced to redeploy ataman Shkuro’s frontline units in order to contain the rapidly expanding zone controlled by the Makhnovists.
Having recovered from this first blow, Denikin’s army recaptured the coastal towns and turned towards Gulyai-Pole. But at this moment Makhno was plotting an unbelievably daring maneuver. “25 October in Ekaterinoslav was market day”, recalled a member of the Ekaterinoslav Committee of the Communist Party: 
Lots of carts rolled into town from the steppe, loaded with vegetables and especially with cabbages. At around 4 p.m. a deafening machine-gun battle erupted in the upper market: it turned out that machine guns were concealed in the carts under the cabbages, and the vegetable traders were an advance detachment of Makhnovists. This detachment was followed by the entire army, which appeared out of the steppe, whence Denikin’s army were not expecting to be attacked.
Denikin’s men managed to repulse the attack, but their defenses were weakened. On the 11th November Ekaterinoslav passed for one month (up until 19 December) into the hands of the Makhnovists. During this time 40,000 men were fighting under Makhno’s command.
In the liberated area, the constructive anarchist project resumed yet again. Multi-party congresses of peasants and workers took place. All enterprises were transferred into the hands of those working in them. Peasants producing foodstuffs, and workers who found consumers for their products—bakers, shoemakers, railway workers and so on— benefited from this system of “market socialism”. However, workers employed in heavy industry were dissatisfied with the Makhnovists, and supported the Mensheviks. The Makhnovists set up a system of benefits for the needy, which were distributed without undue red tape to virtually all those wishing to receive Soviet money. Using more reliable forms of currency, obtained in battle, the Makhnovists bought weapons, and published literature and anarchist newspapers.
The inhabitants of Ekaterinoslav assessed each of the various armies that came to the city in terms of the amount of pillaging that took place. Against the general background of the Civil War, the measures Makhno took against pillaging could be regarded as satisfactory. According to the testimony of one of the city’s inhabitants “general pillaging of the kind one got under the Volunteer Army did not happen under the Makhnovists” and “The reprisals that Makhno himself took single-handed against several robbers caught at the bazaar made a great impression on the population; he immediately shot them with his revolver”.
A more serious problem was the Makhnovists’ counter-intelligence service—an out-of-control organ that permitted arbitrary violence against peaceful citizens. Voline confirmed:
... a whole string of people came to me with complaints, which forced me constantly to intervene in cases of counter-intelligence and to appeal to Makhno and to the intelligence service. But the wartime situation and the requirements of my cultural-educational work prevented me from investigating more thoroughly the alleged abuses by counter- intelligence.
Makhnovist counter-intelligence officers shot several dozen people, a great many fewer than the equivalent organs of the Whites and the Reds. But there is no doubt that among those shot were not only White spies, but the Makhnovists’ political opponents, such as the communist commander M.L. Polonskii, whom the service alleged to be fomenting a plot against Makhno. Makhno later admitted: “In the course of the work of the counter-intelligence organs of the Makhnovist army mistakes were sometimes committed which caused us to suffer spiritually, blush and apologize to those injured”.
In December 1919 the Makhnovist army was locked down by an epidemic of typhus. Thousands of soldiers, including their commanders, were temporarily unable to fight. This allowed the Whites for a short time to regain Ekaterinoslav, but by then the Red Army had already entered the region in which the Makhnovists were active.
Despite the fact that Makhno’s real military strength had significantly declined (due to the outbreak of typhus in the army), the Bolshevik command continued to fear the anarchist forces. It decided to resort to a stratagem of military cunning, behaving as if there had been no execution of Makhnovist staff by the Cheka, no order to hand Makhno over to a military tribunal, and no “Polkonskii affair”. That is, behaving as if the old alliance was still in effect.
The Bolsheviks ordered Makhno to leave his district (where the local population supported the insurgents), and move towards the Polish Front. On the way they planned to disarm the Makhnovists. On the 9 January 1920, without waiting for an answer from Makhno, the All-Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee (revkom) charged him extra judicially. On the 14 January the demand to disarm was issued. On the 22 January, Makhno declared his willingness to “march hand in hand” with the Red Army, while still preserving his own independence. At this point more than two divisions of Reds were already carrying out military operations against the Makhnovists, of whom only a few remained in fighting form after the epidemic.
“It was decided to give the insurgents one month’s leave”, the Makhnovists’ head of staff, Belash, recalled. “One Soviet regiment came from the direction of Ekaterinoslav to Nikopol; it occupied the city and began to disarm the typhus-infected Makhnovists ... In the city itself there were over 15,000 insurgents with typhus. Our commanders were all shot, whether sick or healthy”. An exhausting partizan war began against the Reds. The Makhnovists attacked the smaller detachments, and people working in the Bolshevik apparatus, and warehouses. They put a stop to the existing food requisition system, handing out to the peasants the bread that the Bolsheviks had appropriated. Soon, there were almost 20,000 soldiers in Makhno’s army. In the area where they operated the Bolsheviks were obliged to go underground, emerging in the open only when accompanying large military units.
But Makhno’s actions undermined the rear of the Red Army to such an extent that they contributed to the successes of General Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel’s White Army. Makhno did not want to play into the hands of the landowners, and on 1 October 1920 he struck a new alliance with the Bolsheviks. His army, and the Gulyai-Pole region, were to retain full autonomy, and anarchists in Ukraine were to have freedom to agitate, and be released from Bolshevik prisons. The Makhnovists quickly succeeded in dislodging Wrangel’s army from their district. Peace was restored to Gulyai-Pole. Around 100 anarchists came to the district, and engaged in cultural and educational work.
The cream of the Makhnovist troops (with 2400 sabers, 1900 bayonets, 450 machine guns and 32 guns) under the command of Semen Karetnikov (Makhno himself was wounded in the leg) continued their attack on Wrangel under the general command of the Reds. At the same time the Red Army began mobilizing additional troops, and the peasants responded more favorably to this, in light of the alliance between Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks. A peasant volunteer corps took part in storming Perekop, and Karetnikov’s cavalry and a detachment of Foma Kozhin’s machine-gunners participated in the assault on Sivash, in which four Red divisions were also involved.
With victory over the Whites, new trials loomed for Makhno and the anarchists. On 26 November 1920, with no declaration of war, the Bolsheviks launched an attack on them. Already that morning Karetnikov and his staff had been summoned to a meeting with the Bolshevik commander of the Southern Front, Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze: here they were arrested and shot. But with Karetnikov’s units things were not so simple: they scattered the Red units that had surrounded them and with great losses forced their way through from the Crimea. North of Perekop the group clashed with superior Red Army forces, after which only 700 cavalry and 1500 bayonets remained.
In Gulyai-Pole there were more grounds for concern. On the afternoon of the 26 November it became known that the Makhnovist staff in Kharkov had been arrested (some of its members would be shot in 1921). On the night of 25–26 November around 350 anarchists were also arrested, including Voline, Mrachnyi, and anarchist instigators of workers’ strikes in Kharkov.
Units of the 42nd division and two brigades attacked Gulyai-Pole from three sides. One cavalry brigade attacked the Makhnovists from the rear. After shooting at the Red Army units attacking from the south, the Makhnovists left Gulyai-Pole and headed east. An international Bolshevik cavalry brigade entered the town from the north. The units that had pressed in from the south, suspecting nothing, attacked the cavalry that had occupied Gulyai-Pole. A heated battle broke out between the two groups of Reds, which allowed the Makhnovists to escape. On the 7 December, Makhno joined up with Marchenko’s cavalry detachment, which had pushed through from the Crimea.
But at this point, Frunze deployed units from three armies (including two cavalry units) against Makhno. Virtually the entire Red force of the Southern Front fell on the anarchist insurgents, on its way destroying smaller groups that had not succeeded in joining up with Makhno. One small detachment was overwhelmed along the way by partizan units that had survived the first blow. The Makhnovists were also joined by soldiers from Red Army units that they defeated.
After several unsuccessful attempts to surround the insurgents, a huge number of Red Army troops drove them back to the Andreevka district on the Azov coast. On the 15 December the Red Army command reported to the Soviet cabinet (sovnarkom): “continuing our offensive from the south, west and north on Andreevka, our units after a battle captured the outlying districts of this point; the Makhnovists, squeezed from all sides, bunched together in the center of the settlement and continue stubbornly to hold the line”. It seemed that the Makhnovist epic had drawn to a close.
However, Frunze had not reckoned with the unique character of the Makhnovist army. Having explained the task, Makhno dispatched his army in all four directions, in full confidence that it would gather at the appointed place in the rear of the enemy and launch an attack. Moreover, the Makhnovist army was highly mobile: it could move almost entirely on horseback and in machine-gun carts, achieving speeds of up to 85 kilometers a day.
All this helped the Makhnovists, on the 16 December, to escape from the trap that Frunze had prepared. “Already by this time, during the battle, small groups of Makhnovists evaded our units and stole into the north-east ... the Makhnovists approached the village and opened confused fire in the darkness, thereby successfully causing panic among the Red Army units and forcing the latter to scatter”, recalled a Red Army officer. Hunkered down in their machine gun carts, the Makhnovists emerged into a strategic space from which to threaten oncoming Red Army units, who had never imagined that the enemy would break out of its encirclement.
The Bolsheviks’ inability to defeat the Makhnovists by military means prompted them to step up Red Terror. On 5 December, the armies of the Southern Front were given the order to carry out comprehensive searches, to shoot any peasants who did not hand in their weapons, and to impose contributions on villages within whose precincts Red Army units had been attacked. This purge of the Makhno movement even affected those who had subsequently moved over to the Communist Party. Thus at the end of December the entire local revolutionary committee (revkom) in Pologi was arrested, and several of its members executed on the grounds that they had served under Makhno in 1918 (i.e. in the period of the war with the Germans). In order not to unnecessarily endanger the people of his territory, Makhno crossed the Dnepr in December and moved deep into the Right Bank Ukraine. This move seriously weakened the Makhnovists: they were not known in these parts, the area was unfamiliar, and the sympathies of the local peasants inclined towards Petliura’s men, with whom the Makhnovists had cool relations. At the same time, units of three Red cavalry divisions moved forward against the Makhnovists. Bloody battles took place in the area around the Gornyi Tikich river. The Makhnovists moved so swiftly that they were able to take the commander of one of the divisions, Alexandr Parkhomenko, unaware; he was killed on the spot. But the Makhnovists were unable to resist the onslaught of the enemy’s superior forces in alien territory. After sustaining great losses at Gronyi Tikich, the Makhnovists withdrew to the north and crossed the Dnepr at Kanev. They then carried out a raid through the Poltava and Chernigov districts, and moved on to Belovodsk.
In mid-February 1921, Makhno returned to his native district. He was now obsessed with a new idea: to spread his movement widely, gradually attracting more and more new territories and creating reliable bases everywhere. Only thus would it possible to tear asunder the ring of Red Army forces that surrounded his mobile army. But this led to the dispersal of Makhno’s forces. In April Makhno had up to 13,000 troops under his general command, but by May he was able to deploy only around 2,000 men under the command of Kozhin and Kurilenko to deliver a decisive strike in the Poltava area. At the end of June and beginning of July, Makhno’s shock troops suffered a painful blow at Frunze’s hands in Sula. By this time almost 3,000 Makhnovists had voluntarily surrendered to the Red Army.
The movement was melting away before Makhno’s eyes. Once the New Economic Policy (NEP) had been declared, removing the hated impositions of War Communism, many peasants no longer wanted to fight. But Makhno had no intention of being captured. With a small detachment of a few dozen men he managed to cross the entire Ukraine and reach the Romanian border. Several cavalry divisions attempted to track down this detachment, but on 28 August 1921 it made its way across the Dnestr to Bessarabia. Once in Romania, the Makhnovists were disarmed by the authorities. Nestor and his wife Galina Kuzmenko settled in Budapest.
The Bolsheviks demanded that he be handed over, and in April 1922 Makhno chose to move on to Poland. Here, too, Soviet diplomats sought to have him extradited as a criminal. Meanwhile, Makhno did not conceal his views, continuing to campaign for free soviet power, and for safety’s sake the Polish administration sent this group of Russian anarchists to a camp for displaced persons. The Poles suspected Makhno of attempting to foment rebellion in Eastern Galicia in favor of the Soviet-ruled Ukraine.
The prosecutor of the Warsaw circuit court was evidently not interested in investigating in detail the disagreements among the revolutionaries, and came to his own interpretation of Makhno’s statements in support of the soviets, revolution, communism and the free selfd etermination of Ukrainians in Eastern Galicia. On 23 May 1922 criminal charges were brought against Makhno. On 25 September 1922 Makhno, his wife, and two of their comrades, Ivan Khmara and Ya. Dorozhenko, were arrested and sent to Warsaw prison.
On the 27 of November, Makhno stood before a court for the second time in his life. He was accused of contacts with the Soviet mission in Warsaw, and with planning an uprising. When the absurdity of this charge became obvious, the prosecutor started arguing that Makhno was not a political émigré but a bandit. There was always the threat that Poland would use the prisoners as small change in the diplomatic game and hand them over to the Bolsheviks.
The criminal charges were not proved, and on 30 November Makhno was acquitted. He settled in Toruni, where he began to publish his memoirs and prepare for new battles. At the same time Arshinov published the first History of the Makhnovist Movement in Berlin. With Makhno openly declaring his intention to pursue armed struggle against the Bolsheviks, the Polish government expelled him from the country in January 1924. By this time it was clear that any attempt in the near future to foment rebellion on Soviet territory was doomed to failure. Makhno crossed Germany to Paris, where he lived the remainder of his days.
Makhno’s final years were not as stormy as his earlier days, but there was none of the quiet fading away that marked the lives of many émigrés. In Paris Makhno found himself at the center of political discussions, and once more “got on his horse”. The French anarchist Ida Mett recalled that Makhno
... was a great artist, unrecognizably transformed in the presence of a crowd. In a small gathering he had difficulty expressing himself, since his tendency to loud speech-making seemed comical and inappropriate in intimate surroundings. But no sooner did he appear in a large auditorium than one saw a brilliant, eloquent, self-confident orator. Once I was present at a public meeting in Paris where the question of anti-Semitism and the Makhno movement was being discussed. I was deeply struck on that occasion by the power of transformation of which this Ukrainian peasant was capable.
Makhno became, with Arshinov and others, one of the authors of the Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists: this advocated anarchist struggle on the basis of tight theoretical and organizational unity and provoked heated debates in international anarchist circles in 1926–31.
Makhno spent his last years in a one-room apartment in the Parisian suburb of Vincennes. He suffered from severe tuberculosis, and was badly troubled by the wound in his leg. He worked as a carpenter, stage-hand and factory worker, and his wife supported the family by working as a laundress in a boarding house. Sometimes Makhno wandered the streets. Left-wing organizations held meetings against fascism which at times led to clashes. Given Makhno’s character, it is quite possible that he took part in some of these. For a seriously ill sufferer from tuberculosis, this was mortally dangerous. His health deteriorated, and he died on 6 July 1934. Galina and their daughter, Helena, were later deported to Germany as forced labor, and Galina got a further sentence of hard labor under the Soviets after they occupied Germany.
Makhno remains in history as a rebel and the personification of the distinctive nature of the revolution and the civil war in Ukraine. At the same time he was an internationalist and a mirror of the whole Russian revolution—not only its Ukrainian theater—with its tragic collision between the communist agenda and the primordial spirit of the people, a man who sought to synthesize struggles against all authoritarianism and domination with a class-based social revolution via the anarchist project.
Arshinov, Piotr, History of the Makhnovist Movement, 1918–1921, London: Freedom Press, (1923), 1987.
Colin M. Darch, “The Makhnovischna, 1917–1921: ideology, nationalism, and peasant insurgency in early twentieth century Ukraine”, Ph.D. dis., University of Bradford, 1994.
Danilov, V. and T. Shanin, eds., Nestor Makhno, Krest’yanskoe dvizhenie na Ukraine. 1918–1921. Dokumenty i materialy, Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2006.
Goncharok M., Vek voli. Russkii anarkhizm i evrei XIX–XX vv., Ierusalim, Mishmeret Shalom, 1996.
Kobytov P.S., Kozlov V.A. and B.G. Litvak, Russkoe krest’yanstvo. Etapy dukhovnogo osvobozhdeniya, Moscow: n.p., 1988.
Kondufor, Iu. Iu., (ed.), Istoriya Ukrainskoi SSR, Kiev, Nauk: Dumka, volume 6, 1983.
Makhno, Nestor Ivanovich, Vospominanija, Moscow, 1991.
Savchenko V., Avantyuristy grazhdanskoi voiny, Kharkov: Izd-vo Folio, Moscow: AST, 2000.
Shubin, Aleksandr, Makhno i Makhnovskoe dvizhenie, Moscow, Izd-vo “MIK”, 1998.
——, Anarkhistskii sotsial’nyi eksperiment. Ukraina i Ispaniya. 1917–1939, Moscow: Institut vseobshchei istorii RAN, 1998.
——, Anarkhiya—mat’ poryadka. Nestor Makhno kak zerkalo Rossiiskoi revolyutsii, Moscow, Eksmo, 2005.
Strizhakov, Yu. K., Prodotryady v gody grazhdanskoi voiny i inostrannoi interventsii 1917–1921 gg., Moscow, 1973.
Sul’gin V., Dni. 1920 g., Moscow: Moskva Sovremennik, 1990.
Verstyuk, V., Kombrig Nestor Makhno: Iz istorii pervogo soiuza makhnovtt͡ssev s Sovetskoĭ vlastiu, Khark’kov: Nabat, 1990.
Volkovinskii V.N., Makhno i ego krakh, Moscow, Vsesoiuznyi zaochnyi politekhnicheskii institut Moskva, 1991.
Adams, A.E., Bolsheviks in the Ukraine: the Second Campaign, 1918–1919 New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1963.
Dahlmann, Dittmar, Land und Freiheit: Machnovščina und Zapatismo als Beispiele agrarrevolutionärer Bewegungen, Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1986.
Himka, J.P., “Young Radicals and Independent Statehood: the idea of a Ukrainian nation-state, 1890–1895”, Slavic Review, 41: 2, 1982, 219–235.
Malet, Michael, Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War, London: Macmillan, 1982.
Palij, Michael, The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918–1921: an aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.
Peters, Victor, Nestor Makhno: the life of an anarchist, Winnipeg: Echo Books, 1970.
Skirda, Alexandre, Nestor Makhno: anarchy’s Cossack: the struggle for free soviets in the Ukraine 1917–1921, Edinburgh, San Francisco: AK Press, (1982) 2003.
University of Ulster
The young working class of Ireland, formed as it was in an atmosphere saturated with heroic memories of national rebellion, and coming into conflict with the egotistically narrow and imperially arrogant trade unionism of Britain, has wavered accordingly between nationalism and syndicalism, and is always ready to link these conceptions together in its revolutionary consciousness.
Leon Trotsky, 1916.
On Sunday 20 January 1907 Big Jim Larkin disembarked from a crosschannel ferry at Belfast to attend the British Labor Party annual conference and, he hoped, re-organize the Irish ports for the Liverpoolbased National Union of Dock Laborers (NUDL). He made his way with a slouching, gangly gait, without which Irish history might have been quite different. The cumbersomeness had denied him a place in the senior team at Liverpool Football Club, and he was not a man to stay in the reserves.
For the watching detectives, he was easy to read. A black broadbrimmed hat provided the bohemian touch affected by British socialists of the fin de siècle, while his muscular frame, shovel-like hands, worn old great-coat, and thick, droopy mustache, betrayed his fifteen years as a Merseyside docker. Less obviously, Belfast was a kind of homecoming for Larkin. Though he is not known to have set foot in Ireland since his birth in Liverpool in 1874, his parents had emigrated from Ulster, and he would insist, from 1909 at latest, that he too was an Ulsterman, born and bred in the maternal family homestead in south Down. Coincidentally, in that year, he left the NUDL to launch the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), and begin the “conflict with the egotistically narrow and imperially arrogant trade unionism of Britain”.
Two others who would be instrumental in the pursuit of syndicalism and industrial unionism in Ireland were James Connolly and William O’Brien. Connolly was the polar opposite of Larkin in temperament and style, but they had much in common in their background and politics. Connolly also claimed an Ulster nativity, although he was born in Edinburgh in 1868: at least his parents were of that opinion. Following activism in the Scottish wing of the Social Democratic Federation, Connolly settled in Dublin in 1896, and founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party on the theses with which he is most identified: the Irish national struggle was also a social struggle, only the working class could complete the struggle, and only socialism could guarantee real economic independence. In 1903 he moved on to the United States (US). He had already been attracted to the ideas of Daniel De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), and would be impressed by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The essence of his revolutionary industrial unionism was summed up in his pamphlet Socialism Made Easy in 1908.
Returning to Dublin in 1910, Connolly became an official of the ITGWU in 1911, and succeeded Larkin as head of the union in 1914. In public history, both were equally towering leaders at this time, and complimentary book-ends: Connolly being the political revolutionist and nationalist, and Larkin being the union agitator and internationalist. In reality, Larkin was by far the more important of the two during the first phase of syndicalist unrest, from 1907 to 1914: indeed militancy in these years was usually called “Larkinism”.
Brilliant as a polemicist, Connolly was never very effective as an agitator: according to the wags, the Irish Socialist Republican Party had more syllables than members. And it was Larkin who first consolidated a socialist republican voice within the Labor movement, for whilst there is no evidence that either influenced—or liked—the other, both reached similar conclusions on Labor strategy and on the national question. Connolly’s influence followed his execution by a British firing squad in the wake of the Easter Rising of 1916, which made him Labor’s national martyr. Socialism Made Easy would have a seminal impact on the ITGWU during the second wave of syndicalism, from 1917 to 1923.
O’Brien had been a disciple of Connolly’s in the Irish Socialist Republican Party. Born in Cork in 1881, he worked as a tailor in Dublin until 1917, and was a prominent behind-the-scenes director of operations in the engine rooms of various Labor initiatives. O’Brien had nothing of Larkin’s charisma or Connolly’s interest in theory. Cold and reserved, his forté was administration rather than agitation. Equally, he was shrewd, capable, and ruthless in his ambition. Joining the ITGWU in 1917, he soon became the most powerful officer in Ireland’s most powerful union; a status he guarded jealously until his retirement in 1946. Enigmatically, he combined a near filial devotion to Connolly with a pragmatic, managerial approach to trade unionism. His relevance to this story rests chiefly on his pursuit of industrial unionism in the 1930s, which forms a postscript to Irish syndicalism.
There was never a formally syndicalist organization in Ireland— even if the ITGWU came close at times—which partly explains why the phenomenon has been virtually ignored by historians. Neither was there a tradition of socialist debate in the Labor movement. An Irish Trades Union Congress (ITUC), modeled on its British namesake, had been founded in 1894. Notionally, it created a Labor Party in 1912, but the party did not contest a general election until 1922.
What Irish syndicalism amounted to was Larkinism and, from 1917 to 1923, Connolly’s “industrial unionism”, and these were applied to structures that were not syndicalist in conception. Irish syndicalism was therefore amorphous, and contingent. And yet it had a major and recognizable impact on Labor for two reasons. First, it seemed to answer the problem of how to unionize the mass of workers in an undeveloped economy. Secondly, it interacted with the redefinition of Labor in Ireland as an Irish Labor movement.
Leon Trotsky’s observation on the Easter Rising exaggerated the revolutionism of Irish workers in 1916: Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army led little more than 200 workers to join the Irish Volunteers in the Rising. But Trotsky did grasp the triangle of factors—syndicalism, nationalism, and British trade unionism—that were shaping Labor’s evolution at this time. Ireland in the 1900s was notionally a region of the British Labor movement. The more radical activists were coming to question the value of the link with British Labor, and syndicalism and industrial unionism appeared to offer a better alternative. As one could not build an Irish movement without breaking away from British unions, nationalism and syndicalism became inextricably connected.
The history of Irish trade unionism in the 19th century mirrored the country’s uneven economic development. Supplying food and textiles to emergent industrial Britain and provisioning the transatlantic trade in the 18th century had stimulated an “economic miracle” in Ireland. A growth in population, from 2.5 million in 1753 to 6.8 million in 1821 encouraged the growth of trades and trade unions. In the decade after the repeal of the anti-trade union Combination Acts in 1824, Dublin was regarded as the strongest center of trade unionism in the United Kingdom (UK). Labor bodies were active too in other Irish cities and among agricultural workers. However their power reflected the failure of employers to advance from craft- based to factory-b ased production, and they were, as they realized themselves, living on borrowed time.
The political union of Ireland and Britain in 1800 was followed by a customs and monetary union in 1825. Unable to compete with the “workshop of the world”, Irish proto-i ndustries sank into decay. Economic decline, the Great Famine of 1845–50, and high emigration reduced the population from 8.2 million to 4.4 million between 1841 and 1911. Only in the Belfast region did capitalist colonization generate a limited industrialization, in textiles, engineering, and shipbuilding. Elsewhere, the economy became massively dependent on agricultural exports to Britain.
When the south of Ireland won de facto independence as the Irish Free State in 1922, agriculture employed over half the labor force, agriculture, food, and drink accounted for 86 percent of exports, and 98 percent of exports went to the UK. Economic differences between Ulster and the south underpinned religious and political differences. Whereas the southern provinces were overwhelmingly Catholic, Ulster was largely Protestant. From 1886, the nationalist demand for ‘Home Rule’, or self-government within the UK, provoked a counter-mobilization of Unionism in Ulster, and intermittent crises until the constitutional settlement of 1922.
The dimensions of the problems confronting Irish trade unionism may be gauged from the census of 1911. Of some 900,000 employes, 348,670 were classed as agricultural or general laborers, 170,749 were in domestic or related service, and 201,717 worked in textiles and dressmaking. Thus, over seven out of every nine employes were to be found in largely unorganized, subsistence-waged employment. Trade unions were located mainly in the shipbuilding and engineering trades (30,234 workers); construction (which included 49,445 craftsmen); the tiny skilled grades in textiles and clothing; and the constellation of butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers who held such a high profile in the pre- Larkinite ITUC.
Labor’s weakness was exacerbated by the concentration of manufacture in Ulster, and its fraught political relationship with the rest of Ireland. Trade unions in Belfast’s metal trades, for example, were not affiliated to Congress and scarcely a part of the Irish Labor movement.
Membership of Congress in 1911 was given as 50,000, and as this figure included trades councils—local committees of unions—the real level of membership was probably about 30,000. The weakness of the craft unions gave unskilled workers, potentially, a great importance. Any union that managed to recruit a fraction of general workers would be in a position to dominate the ITUC.
Among general workers, those employed in transport and essential services, who operated at the hinges of commercial infrastructure where strikes would have an immediate and widespread effect, were most favorably placed to take successful industrial action. Transport was also a growth sector. The 1891 census noted 38,231 “persons engaged on railways, roads, rivers, seas, storage, conveyancing messages etc”, and by 1911 the number had risen to 62,947. Here was the Achilles Heel of Irish employers. Between 1907 and 1912 transport accounted for an annual average of 12 percent of strikers and fewer than 4 percent of strike days in the UK. In Ireland, it accounted for 22 percent of strikes, 33 percent of strikers, and 33 percent of strike days over the same period.
Transport unions played a leading role in each of three waves of militancy that transformed Irish Labor between 1889 and 1923. It is evident too that because of their own weakness, unions and workers in other sectors were willing to support transport workers when they gave a lead. The first of the three waves was powered by the extension of British ‘new unionism’ to Ireland between 1889 and 1891. The new unions organized unskilled workers and were more militant and more influenced by socialists than the craft unions, which held them in some suspicion. Irish new unionism was pioneered by seafarers’ and dockside unions, and similar in character to its British counterpart, except that Irish craftsmen were notably sympathetic to the fraternity of “trade and spade”. Trades councils, for example, while dominated by artisans, sponsored May Day parades, encouraged Labor politics, and sought to speak for workers as a whole. During the Larkinite phase, transport workers would act as a bridge to other general workers. In the third wave, from 1917 to 1923, the ITGWU acquired a guiding influence and diffused a syndicalist character to unrest. The continuities in theme between Larkinism and the later syndicalism are remarkable, the more so as Larkin was in the US between 1914 and 1923.
What began, in January 1907, as a revival of new unionism, quickly evolved into Larkinism. Employers coined the term, as short hand for militancy, the cult of the agitator, and the sympathetic strike, and to distinguish these from what they called “bona fide trade u nionism”. In the extensive literature on the topic, little of which is both substantial and scholarly, Larkinism is usually treated simply as the cult of Big Jim. There was certainly a personality cult, which Jim would promote shamelessly. And Larkin did not try to express his ideas in any systematic way. Yet there was in Larkinism a method, a morality, a politics, and a strategy, all of which were syndicalist in some degree.
In line with NUDL policy, Larkin had set out to recruit dockers only and pursue improvements in conditions without strikes. Within weeks, allied workers were seeking to join the union, and within months Larkin was being drawn into strikes by a combination of membership spontaneity and employer militancy. The Belfast dock strike of 1907 established his reputation. It was typical of Larkin that he would oppose strike action at first, but once convinced that conflict was unavoidable, he would mobilize all possible forces behind it and extend action to overstretch the employers and police. In June he escalated sectional disputes into a general strike in the port of Belfast. The mythology soon followed.
The sectarianism for which Belfast was notorious created deep divisions between workers, and the city’s Catholic minority of some 25 percent formed a subaltern caste. It was said that Larkin led Catholics and Protestants in a parade on 12 July, when Protestants annually celebrated the victory of King William of Orange over a Catholic army in 1690, and that he incited the police to mutiny. In fact, he spent the 12th in Liverpool with his ailing mother, and had no direct part in the police action.
As with most myths, the facts embellished an essential truth, and Larkin did forge a brief, exultant unity across the religious divide, climaxing on 26 July when 100,000 people turned out for a trades council parade, which pointedly wound its way around the (Catholic) Falls and (Protestant) Shankill roads. The extraordinary atmosphere attracted a stream of visitors from the British left, and they were not disappointed. John Maclean wrote home: “Addressed strikers at night. Audience of thousands. Laborers mad to join trade unions”. Famously, on 24 July, the police buckled under the burden of their additional duties, assembled to demand better pay and conditions, and fraternized with the strikers. The government promptly rusticated 270 constables and rushed in 6,000 troops. Generalized action and sympathetic action, whether in the form of blacking “tainted goods” or striking in support, became the standard fallback tactics in Larkin’s method of industrial warfare.
Larkin underpinned his method with a morality, emphasizing repeatedly that workers’ solidarity was a code of honor. Like many socialists of the fin de siècle, he was essentially a moralist. Arguably, as early as 1911 he was more interested in revolutionizing popular values than in the mundane work of organization. As soon as he had placed the ITGWU on a stable footing, he founded a newspaper, the Irish Worker. The first issue, on 27 May 1911, sold about 5,000 copies. Within weeks, sales were above 20,000 per week. Over a period of fortyone months, Larkin edited 189 issues, and wrote the editorials and more than 400 articles. He campaigned for temperance and played an active part in developing values such as sharing, fraternity, co- operation, and collectivism, as a counterc ulture to possessive individualism. In 1914 he told a meeting in Sheffield: “Get in the co- operative movement. Make it a real co- operative movement. Build up round your Trade Union, as we do in Dublin, every social movement, every part of your material side of life. Make your center of Trade Unionism a center of all your life and activities”. He had taken steps in this direction in the ITGWU’s head office, Liberty Hall, which hosted classes in music and drama, and in renting Croydon Park House as a recreation center where union members and their families could enjoy social and sports activities. As Larkin put it, “we make our family life focus around the union ...”.
As early as the summer of 1907, the NUDL general secretary, James Sexton, had come to regard Larkin as a dangerous militant. Sexton saw no need for the NUDL to recruit other than dockers, or support generalized action. Larkin determined to follow his own course, and in December 1908 he was suspended from his job. With little alternative, he formed his own union, and confronted the great strategic question facing Irish Labor.
British unions—“the amalgamateds” as they were often called, as so many were originally styled “amalgamated society of ...”—had been extending to Ireland since the 1840s, absorbing the smaller Irish societies. By 1900 some 75 percent of Irish trade unionists belonged to the amalgamateds and, despite the existence of the ITUC, they looked to Britain for leadership, example, and organization. Having launched an Irish union, Larkin made a virtue of necessity. The preamble to the ITGWU’s first rule book asked: “Are we going to continue the policy of grafting ourselves on the English Trades Union movement, losing our identity as a nation in the great world of organized labor? We say emphatically, No. Ireland has politically reached her manhood”.
Between 1909 and 1914, Larkin moved ever closer to the Irish- Ireland movement associated with bodies like the Gaelic League and Sinn Féin (“Ourselves”), which sought the displacement of “anglicization” with a spirit of self-reliance. From this politics the ITGWU acquired a vision that would make it Ireland’s premier union. Its success eventually delivered a terminal blow to the crippling policy of dependency on Britain and laid the basis of the modern Irish Labor movement. This would be Larkin’s most enduring achievement, and there is overwhelming evidence that the politics of Larkinism was socialist republican. Yet Larkin’s national sentiments would be obliterated as subsequent Labor leaders and literati such as Seán O’Casey and James Plunkett chose to commemorate him purely as a socialist.Strategically, Larkin’s thinking shifted incrementally from “new unionism” to industrial unionism. In 1909 his priority was to get the ITGWU accepted as a union and affiliated to the ITUC. In 1910 he attended the inaugural conference of the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) at Manchester, and told delegates that “his union was formed on the industrial basis, and took in all workers in the transport industry. The transport industry held the key, for they could stop the whole of the rest of the trades”. In 1912, the year he became chairman of a largely Larkinite ITUC executive, he called for One Big Union. “Tomorrow”, he declared on the eve of the 1912 annual congress, “We are going to advocate one society for Ireland for skilled and unskilled workers, so that when a skilled man is struck at, out comes the unskilled man, and when an unskilled worker is struck at, he will be supported by the skilled tradesman”. At the congress his proposal for an Irish Federation of Trades met with resistance from the British and some Irish craft unions and was defeated by 28−23 votes.
Larkin and Connolly had more success in persuading the 1912 congress to agree to form a Labor Party. Both combined a conception of electoral politics as “the echo of the [industrial] battle”, with a belief in a “two arms strategy”. In 1914 the ITUC became the ITUC and Labor Party. To politicize the unions and ensure their control over the politicians, the Congress and Party were one and the same, with no separate political machinery. Here again, there was a nationalist dimension, as prior to 1912 the ITUC had regularly urged affiliates to support the British Labor Party, an injunction applied only in Belfast.
Larkinism was, of course, driven also by employers. What little has been written on employer policy in Ireland before the 1960s has focused on economics rather than industrial relations. But what evidence we have points consistently to the fact that if employers were prepared to accept craft unions, they were hostile to the unionization of unskilled workers; regarded Larkinism, sympathetic strikes, and syndicalism as synonymous; and saw Larkin as the instigator of syndicalist doctrines which endangered the basis of the economy itself.
The distinction between skilled and unskilled was most acute in Ireland’s industrial capital. The proportion of unionized men in the metal trades in Belfast in 1900 exceeded the UK average. Unlike their British colleagues, Belfast engineering employers made no attempt to break trade unions in the 1860s and 1870s. As early as 1872 the Belfast Employers’ Association had negotiated directly with unions on wages and conditions. Between 1860 and 1900, skilled rates in the city rose faster than in Britain, and due to the scarcity of artisans and abundance of laborers, the differential between skilled and unskilled wages in Belfast exceeded the UK average, sometimes reaching a ratio of 3:1.
However the coal heavers who joined the NUDL in 1907 were treated quite differently. They were dismissed and, according to Gray: their employer “stated very clearly the prevailing view of Belfast’s employers when he said, ‘the situation at issue had no reference to wages whatsoever; it was merely as to whether the dockers should associate themselves with a union which he considered should not embrace such a class of employment’”.
Employers were less well organized in the south of Ireland, but they responded to Larkinism in a similar fashion. Federations, created expressly to combat strikes, were formed in Cork in 1909 and Galway in 1911. Within weeks of the ITGWU forming a branch in Wexford in 1911, the town’s major employers gave notice that no member of the union would be employed and locked out 700 men. The September 1911 rail strike popularized the idea of employer federation. The dispute originated in the dismissal of two porters at Kingsbridge (now Heuston) station, Dublin, for refusing to handle “tainted goods”. As spontaneous action erupted along the railway, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants attempted to assert its authority by calling a national strike on 21 September. The decision drew a torrent of criticism in the media, which railed against “foreign” ideas in Irish industrial relations, and alarmed employers. Dublin Chamber of Commerce met in emergency session and urged employers to organize against what one employer termed “not a strike in the ordinary sense ... but the beginning of a social war”.
Within weeks, local employers’ federations were being formed throughout the country. William Martin Murphy, chairman of the Dublin United Tramways Company, owner of the Irish Independent newspaper, vise p resident of the Dublin Chamber, and president in 1913−14, and Dublin’s puissant capitalist, was impressed with the railway directors’ handling of the crisis. The largest company, the Great Southern and Western, locked out 1,600 workers by closing the railway workshops and imported labor from England. When the strike collapsed on 4 October 1911, the Great Southern refused to re -employ 10 percent of the strikers, and re-e ngaged others at reduced rates; men recruited during the strike were retained, and those who had stayed at work were rewarded with bonuses. So pleased were the directors with crushing Larkinism, that they marked the occasion with the gift of a clock to each of 121 station masters.
To the dismay of other employers, the defeat of the railwaymen did not arrest the contemporary strike wave or restrain the use of sympathetic action. The employers blamed Larkin, but they also blamed the Liberal government—for introducing the Trades Disputes Act 1906 and the National Insurance Act 1911, and for its “supineness” towards trade unions—and its minions in the administration in Dublin Castle. After the police mutiny in Belfast in 1907, the authorities were nervous about confronting Larkin. Police unrest in Unionist Ulster was bad enough: a mutiny in nationalist Dublin was not to be risked. That in turn made Dublin employers fearful of emulating their provincial colleagues and the railway companies in using strike-breakers.
Murphy however, was determined never to recognize Larkin’s union. He made no secret of the fact that his quarrel with Liberty Hall was not about wages and conditions. Business, he told his colleagues, could not survive the “system known as ‘syndicalism’ or ‘sympathetic strikes’ ”. There was a personal dimension to the antagonism, and more so for Murphy than Larkin. If the Irish Worker had vilified Murphy repeatedly as the epitome of sweating capitalism, ad hominem abuse was Larkin’s way: it served his compulsion to put a face on the enemy. He had no ulterior motive in challenging Murphy. He had always believed that the financial future of the ITGWU depended on pushing into steady employment areas such as the railway and Murphy’s splendid tramway system. On the other hand, when Murphy called Larkin a “mean thief” and expressed surprise that artisans should associate with “scum like Larkin and his followers”, he was not playing to the gallery.
Murphy prepared his ground well. One week before the ITGWU struck the trams, he visited Dublin Castle and emerged with firm assurances of adequate protection in the event of trouble. On 3 September he chaired a meeting of 404 employers, who agreed to dismiss all workers who would not sign a document obliging them to carry out their employers’ instructions and in no way support the ITGWU. It was expected that, as in the rail strike, union opposition would crumble quickly. By the end of September, a strike of perhaps 340 men had led to a lockout of over 20,000 workers in a city of 300,000 people.
In the public memory, the lockout is synonymous with Larkinism, and its raw class solidarity understood as a by- product of Dublin’s appalling social conditions. Yet Larkinism began in Belfast, where, in 1903, 1 percent of families lived in one room tenements, compared with 26 percent in Glasgow, and 35 percent in Dublin. Protagonists had no doubt that syndicalism lurked at the heart of the lockout. The Board of Trade conciliator, George Askwith, recalled that while British strikes of the period were “chiefly based upon economic issues, the serious riots in Dublin, although founded on poverty, low wages and bad conditions, included the determination to establish the transport workers’ union as ‘the one big union’ in Ireland and put into practice the doctrines of syndicalism”.
Wright, the employers’ historian of the conflict, represented his patrons as defending the protocols of responsible labor-management against the impossible Mr Larkin and his reckless syndicalist belief in the sympathetic strike, and stressed the influence of the government’s failure to contain industrial unrest in England. More surprisingly perhaps, it is easy to find Labor voices in agreement with Askwith. W.P. Ryan, assistant editor of the Daily Herald, the voice of the “rebels” on the British left, also placed syndicalism at the kernel of the dispute, adding that the employers “were quite correct from their point of view”. The first academic history of Irish labor, written in 1925, offered a similar analysis.
Resistance to the lockout finally crumbled in January 1914. The ITGWU emerged from the ordeal more aggressively national. There were various reasons for the shift in emphasis. Since the strike wave of 1911, Larkinism had begun to differentiate nationalists on the social question. Supporters of the constitutional nationalist Home Rule party tended to be hostile, while those in the leading republican organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), were more sympathetic.
The lockout itself generated the first intellectual explorations in socialist republicanism outside of Connolly’s writing. P.H. Pearse, who would mastermind the Easter Rising, wrote, in a polemic against the employers: “A free Ireland would not, could not, have hunger in her fertile vales and squalor in her cities ...” As Yeates has noted, the contention that a republic would be socially inclusive mirrored Connolly’s line that only under socialism would Ireland be free, and “the practical conclusions for future political action were almost identical”. Ryan penned the pamphlet The Labor Revolt and Larkinism: the Later Irish Pioneers and the Cooperative Commonwealth (1913) which envisaged Larkinism, the cooperative movement, and politico-cultural forces like Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League remaking the Gaelic communism romanticized by Connolly in Labor in Irish History.
At a personal level, Larkin wanted a distraction from the burden of running a bankrupt union, and Ireland was in the throes of the third Home Rule crisis. Though usually associated with Connolly, it was Larkin who led the ITGWU in a more openly republican direction. The Citizen Army, created in November 1913 to protect workers from the police, was transformed from a picket-militia into a pocket army. When the government announced its intention to accommodate Unionists by partitioning Ireland, Larkin was beside himself with anger.
Connolly’s observation that partition would mean “a carnival of reaction both North and South” has often been treated as a unique prophetic insight, but it was exceptional only in its eloquence. The bulk of Labor activists, in Britain and Ireland, regarded Unionism as politically organized sectarianism, and believed that dividing Ireland along religious lines would create two reactionary, confessional states. Congress sponsored an anti-partition meeting on 5 April 1914 and condemned partition at its annual conference in June by 84–2 votes, with eight delegates unrecorded: twenty delegates from Ulster, and four from Britain, attended the Congress.
The Ulstermen may not have spoken for the majority of their members, but they probably reflected the views of northern Labor activists, most of who were not nationalists, but were fearful of being locked into a sectarian statelet. Each of the previous Home Rule crises, in 1886 and 1893, had seen Catholics forced from their jobs in Belfast. During the third crisis, in 1912, 3,000 workers were victimized by loyalists. On this occasion, men of all religions were targeted, and about 600 were Protestant, expelled for their Labor or Liberal, and therefore anti-partitionist, sympathies. Larkin’s response to the World War was exactly the same as Connolly’s. Even before events in the Balkans engulfed Europe, the Irish Worker called on “every man who believed in Ireland as a nation to act now. England’s need, our opportunity. The men are ready. The guns must be got, and at once”. On the outbreak of war, Larkin had his boyhood friend, syndicalist Ferd Bower, smuggle a few guns from Liverpool.
In October 1914, under the guise of a fund-raising trip, Larkin abandoned the stricken ITGWU for a new career as a globe-trotting, freelance agitator. He remained the ITGWU’s titular general secretary. Connolly became acting general secretary of the union, commandant of the Citizen Army, and editor of the Irish Worker. Labor generally was adversely affected by the lockout, and the ITGWU became increasingly isolated within the trade union movement. Its membership had now fallen from some 20,000 on the eve of the lockout to about 5,000. Within the union executive there was mounting unease about Connolly’s repeated calls for an insurrection, and it came close to repudiating the Citizen Army on the eve of Easter Week, 1916.
Like the government, Connolly believed the IRB would never seize the moment, until January 1916, when he was made privy to their plans. The Rising was to have German military aid, and coincide with the German offensive at Verdun. Though Connolly used Liberty Hall as a base for preparations, he made no effort to involve the union in the conspiracy, which, naturally, had to be secret. Liberty Hall was nonetheless shelled by the British during the week-long insurrection, and the ITGWU was widely regarded as a participant. Initially, public opinion seemed hostile to the rebels who had brought war to the streets of Dublin. Anxious about employer demands that Labor be held legally responsible for the damage to property, the ITUC dissociated itself from the insurgents in its annual report for 1916. It seemed that Larkinism was as dead as Connolly himself.
Within three years of the Rising, Labor was on the march again, militant, radical, and more influenced by syndicalism than ever before. The primary cause of this change of fortune was the World War. Secondary factors were the climate of class struggle internationally and the political revolution at home. The executions and arrests that followed the Easter Rising swung public opinion away from the Home Rulers to the separatists, who took control of Sinn Féin in 1917, and then won seventy three of Ireland’s 105 seats in the UK parliament in the general election of December 1918.
On 21 January 1919, Sinn Féin MPs constituted themselves as Dáil Éireann (the Assembly of Ireland), declared Ireland a republic, and set about building a counter-state to the colonial administration. That same day, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began the War of Independence with an attack on a police escort. Britain tried to suppress both the Dáil government and the IRA, until a truce was accepted in July 1921. The majority of Sinn Féin agreed to the Anglo-Irish treaty of 6 December 1921, which made the south of Ireland a self-governing dominion of the empire, and left most of Ulster within the UK. The majority of the IRA tried to sustain the struggle for total independence, until crushed in the Civil War of 1922–1923.
For workers on the home front, the world war was one of two halves. Meeting the needs of Britain’s war economy brought great prosperity to Irish employers. Employes were less fortunate. Wages failed to match inflation from 1914 to 1916, causing hardship and accusations of profiteering against the propertied classes. But if the first half of the war stored up social grievances, production demands and the growing manpower shortage after 1916 provided the means of redress. The preconditions of wage improvement materialized in two ways: through government intervention to increase pay in war-related industries, and, later, through the all-round economic improvement. After the war, the release of “pent-up” consumer demand generated a brief economic boom. Wages generally rose faster than prices from 1916, overtaking pre-war levels by 1919–20, until the economy hit a disastrous slump in 1920–21. Given the nature of capitalism, the money was only for those who could get it.
Trade unionism exploded in all directions; from under 100,000 in 1916, membership affiliated to Congress reached 225,000 in 1920. Trades councils multiplied, to fifteen by 1918 and forty six by 1921. Symbolic of the new values was their titular rejection of “trades and labor” in favor of “workers’ council”.
State intervention remained a key determinant of wage movements for the first three years of the war. Though the initial effect of statutory control was to freeze wages, from 1915 onwards intervention became a means of securing war bonuses or minimum rates. Importance to the war effort and good organization were therefore essential for successful militancy. Ireland’s piecemeal integration into the war economy created a time-lag in wage movements between employment sectors.
“Old sectors”, i.e. those with a history of trade unionism, were the first to recoup lost ground. Seamen and dockers won pay advances in 1915. The government took control of the shipyards and railways in 1916, making provision for the payment of war bonuses. Airdrome and other military construction, together with the repair of Dublin’s shelltorn city center, revived the building line in 1917–18. Building became particularly strike-prone after mid 1918. Almost 19 percent of all strikers between 1914 and 1921 were building workers. The introduction of statutory minimum rates in agriculture in 1917 finally enabled “new sectors” to join the wages movement over the next two years.
Government regulation and the interventionist momentum persisted into the postwar era, partly in response to fears of class conflict. The recommendations of the Whitley committee, appointed to investigate wartime industrial unrest in Britain, led to the Trade Boards Act (1918). An Irish Department of the British Ministry of Labor was set up in July 1919, and by August 1920 there were nineteen trade boards covering 148,000 employes, the bulk of them in Ulster’s textile and clothing industries.
The war mobilized industry without restructuring the workforce. Ulster was the main beneficiary. Textiles, clothing, engineering, and shipbuilding were soon harnessed to military needs, but no sizable munitions sector developed in Ulster, while Unionist and British employer determination to freeze nationalist Ireland out of lucrative war contracts kept the south de-industrialized. The few munitions factories distributed to mollify nationalist outrage did not commence production until 1917, and employed a mere 2,169 persons by the armistice.
As a result, southern wage movements were compelled to be the cause as much as the consequence of state intervention. This, together with the more primitive condition of industrial relations in which they operated, gave them a more militant character, and strikes lit the path of trade unionism to new sectors and new regions. Strike activity increased steadily from 1915 to the armistice. The level of conflict declined in 1919 as rising unemployment yielded quickly to an economic boom, but militancy reached new heights in 1920, before receding sharply with the onset of the slump and the gradual fall in the cost of living towards the end of that year.
For their impact on the character of trade unionism, the most important state interventions were those on the railway and in agriculture. Under severe rank and file pressure, the London-based National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) sanctioned a national strike in Ireland in December 1916. As private interests would not meet the pay demand, the government stepped in to keep the war effort running smoothly, took control of Ireland’s thirty two railway companies, and awarded a substantial war bonus. Over the next nine months the NUR’s Irish affiliation rocketed from 5,000 to 17,000 members. It was a victory for the rank and file over the union’s London executive, as well as for the union over the railway companies. In 1917 NUR men launched the monthly journal New Way and developed the most articulate rank and file movement in Ireland during these years.
As food supplies worsened alarmingly in the winter of 1916/17, the government introduced tillage orders under the Corn Production Act, obliging farmers to bring at least 10 percent of their arable land under the plow in 1917, and a further 5 percent in 1918. Tillage being labor intensive, the Act gave farm workers a scarcity value. An Agricultural Wages Board was established in September 1917 to determine compulsory minimum pay and conditions. The food supply crisis gave Congress a social purpose and widened the ambit of industrial struggle. Workers, especially NUR men, responded to profiteering by setting up consumer co-operatives which, though limited in scale, and mostly of brief duration, were of demonstrative importance for the inchoate anti-capitalist sentiment welling up in popular consciousness. As unrest spread, the coincidence of pay claims from so many disparate occupations turned wage movements into ‘the wages movement’.
Trends towards general action first cohered in Dublin in October 1917 when strike notices affecting 2,000–3,000 employes were pending. Murphy’s Irish Independent feared another 1913. Dublin’s trades council offered to co-ordinate demands and promote the convening of unions in industrial groups. The ITGWU especially, responded to the new opportunities. Re-organized in 1917, the union had mushroomed to 120,000 members by 1920, half of them in agriculture.
In what ways was Labor syndicalist? There were still no card carrying syndicalists in Ireland, and the term was rarely used, though “industrial unionism”, “OBU” (One Big Union), “cooperative commonwealth”, and “workers’ republic” were coming into common currency. The leadership of Congress, in which O’Brien was central, was happy to be radical only as long as it led to trade union growth. Again, it is in the character of Labor activity and policy, in the revival of Larkinism and the adoption of Connolly’s industrial unionism, that the syndicalist footprint becomes evident.
Tactically, there was a spontaneous resurgence of Larkinite methods of sympathetic action. In some cases this extended generalized action. Between 1917 and 1920 there were eighteen local general strikes, mainly in small towns where almost all workers had joined the ITGWU and put forward common wage demands. During these strikes the town was usually taken over by the strike committee, which controlled business and transport through a system of permits. The permits were a means of getting everyone—including employers—to accept the authority of the union as well as enforcing solidarity.
Workplace seizures—or soviets as they were called—almost all involving the ITGWU, emerged from November 1918 onwards, substantially as strike tactics but indicating too a political ambition. The most extensive seizure, that of thirteen Limerick creameries in 1920, was a well planned affair directed by three socialist ITGWU officials. On 16 May a red flag was hoisted over the central creamery at Knocklong and a banner proclaimed: “We make butter, not profits. Knocklong Creamery Soviet”. The latest ITGWU paper, the Watchword of Labor, compared the creamery soviets with the takeover of the FIAT car works in Turin in 1920, though it conceded that Turin represented “an advance on Knocklong”. Strikes, especially in rural areas, were also more likely to accompanied by sabotage or violence during these years.
Syndicalism was evident too in efforts to develop a working class counter-culture, through co-operatives, May Day parades, festivals (aeríochtaí), and labor newspapers. Liberty Hall tried to revive Larkin’s ideas on alternative morality. Its annual report for 1919 directed members to conceive of the union “as a social center, round which they can build every activity of their existence, and which, wisely used, can be made to remedy all their grievances”. In 1919 trade unions funded the James Connolly Labor College, which enrolled over 200 students in classes in history, economics, and public administration. An appeal for lecturers in the Watchword of Labor advised that “the working class outlook” was an essential requirement “for unless ye become as proletarians ye cannot enter the Workers’ Republic”. The College flourished up to November 1920, when it was raided and ransacked by the British military.
One measure of the greater profile of workers at this time is Catholic Church’s heightened interest in the social question. The Catholic publication, the Irish Messenger, published twenty eight pamphlets on the Church and labor in 1918, compared with five in 1913. There was even, mirabile dictu, an academic study of labor, George O’Brien’s Labor Organization (1921). Another book on labor from an Irish academic would not appear until 1973!
The syndicalist imprint was particularly marked on Labor strategy. By 1918 the ITGWU was facing an entirely novel problem for an Irish union: how to make best advantage of the tens of thousands of workers flooding into the union. It turned to Connolly’s Socialism Made Easy for an answer. Part II of this beautifully clear pamphlet gave Liberty Hall a project to modernize the entire movement. On 1 July 1918, the ITGWU issued The Lines of Progress, a pamphlet intended to “advance Connolly’s OBU idea” in order to develop “a scientific solution to the Labor question”. “With this machine [the OBU] in their possession”, it promised, “the workers of Ireland can break all their chains with ease and from the mere rallying cry of political parties turn Freedom into a glorious reality”. In 1921 the ITGWU published the first Irish edition of Socialism Made Easy together with other Connolly writings on industrial unionism in the pamphlet The Ax to the Root. Industrial unionism was also promoted in the NUR’s New Way.
The impact of change was unmistakable at the 1918 annual ITUC: 240 delegates attended, compared with ninety nine the previous year. O’Brien’s presidential address strained to strike a historic note, eulogizing Connolly and his influence on “the great Russian Revolution”. The delegates passed unanimously a motion of support for the Bolsheviks, peace in Europe, and self-determination for all peoples, and the Congress took as its objective the promotion of working class organization socially, industrially, and politically in co-operatives, trade unions, and a political party. At a special conference in November 1918, Congress changed its name to the Irish Labor Party and Trade Union Congress, and adopted a socialist program, demanding collective ownership of wealth and democratic management of production.
In February 1919, a special congress met to co-ordinate a “Proposed United National Wages and Hours Movement”, and in August the ITUC voted to transform itself into a single Irish Workers’ Union.
Structured in ten industrial sectors, the union, through its political and industrial activities, aimed to realize “the taking over control of industry by the organized working class”. Ultimately, Congress failed to surmount sectionalism and give effect to the “Wages and Hours Movement” or the Irish Workers’ Union. It was an opportunity wasted, as unions would never be as united again for another twenty years.
Setbacks in these heady times seemed inconsequential, as Labor looked certain to become a major player in the new Ireland. No one knew what economic disasters lay around the corner. But it is not being wise after the event to criticize Labor for failing to take better advantage of the national revolution. Despite Connolly and Larkin, Labor never rid itself of the notion—deeply embedded in its psyche during the height of anglicization—that socialism and nationalism were dichotomous. While willing to go with the flow of popular sentiment, it was reluctant to lead opinion on the national question, or bargain with nationalists.
The independence struggle radicalized Labor, but equally, Labor squandered its chances to demand more of it. Congress’s main interventions came in three general strikes. On 23 April 1918, workers struck against the extension of conscription to Ireland. The success of Ireland’s first general strike made Labor seem a power in the land. The next three months witnessed a tremendous upsurge of union membership. A second national strike followed on 1 May 1919 “for international proletarian solidarity and self-determination for all peoples”.
Labor’s finest hour came on 12 April 1920, when it called an immediate indefinite general strike for the release of political prisoners on hunger strike. Co-ordinated by workers’ councils, many of which assumed a “soviet” style command of local government for the occasion, the stoppage was a spectacular demonstration of Labor discipline. Fearing the infection of the Sinn Féin struggle with “Bolshevism”, the authorities released the prisoners after two days. Though prompted by a national issue, the strike uncovered the social revolutionary dynamic bubbling at the base of the movement. As the Manchester Guardian remarked on 20 April: “The direction of affairs passed during the strike to these [workers’] councils, which were formed not on a local but on a class basis…It is no exaggeration to trace a flavor of proletarian dictatorship about some aspects of the strike”.
There were also three major rank-and-file initiatives. In April 1919, the Limerick trades council co-ordinated a nine-day general strike “against British militarism”. The Irish Automobile Drivers’ and Mechanics’ Union struck in November in protest at the introduction of compulsory permits for vehicle drivers; a move by the authorities designed to assist the monitoring of transport. Dockers, and then railwaymen, commenced a seven month selective stoppage in May 1920, refusing to handle or convey British munitions. The only concession that Labor wanted—and received—from Sinn Féin was the neutrality of the IRA towards direct action in furtherance of the wages movement. It was assumed that once the national revolution was completed, class politics would come into its own.
Even as the revolution approached its climax, syndicalism started to falter in the slump. Massive expansion of the world’s productive capacity during World War I, followed by a further increase in output to meet the first demands of a peace-time market, led to a crisis of overproduction in the autumn of 1920. Food prices were the first to tumble, causing a severe depression in agriculture. During 1921, Irish manufacturing trade was almost halved. By December, over 26 percent of workers were idle. Rising unemployment depressed consumer demand, sending the economy tail spinning into long-term recession. Employers clamored for the restoration of pre-war wage levels. In Britain, wages were getting “back to normal” following the collapse of the Triple Alliance of railwaymen’s, miners’, and transport unions on “Black Friday”. A similar pattern was anticipated in Ireland, with the railwaymen providing the initial sacrifice following government decontrol of the railways on 14 August 1921. Largely fulfilled in Northern Ireland, employer expectations were frustrated in the south by the effect with which militancy could be deployed in the near anarchic conditions obtaining up to 1923.
The 1921 congress pledged to “hold the harvest” of wage gains, and urged the formation of inter-union committees on a local and industrial basis to co-ordinate resistance to wage cuts. Speaker after speaker affirmed their conviction in industrial unionism as a strategic riposte to the employers’ counter-attack, and declared that they would have no “Black Fridays” in Ireland. But when it came to the crunch, it became a sauve qui peut. Irish unions, especially the ITGWU, exploited the readiness of the amalgamateds to accept wage cuts in line with the more rapidly falling pay rates in Britain.
By 1922, a deep and persistent Anglophobia had crept into interunion rivalry, aggravated by the inaction of British Labor in the face of sectarian disturbances in Ulster and its stubborn intention to remain in post-colonial Ireland. Nor was the squabbling confined to Anglo-Irish friction. Inter-union competition for a dwindling pool of members soured industrial unionism: the OBU, the cynics said, meant “O’Brien’s Union”. Militancy in the absence of effecting policing enabled workers to put up a dogged fight, and the ITGWU had the best record of any union in this respect: remarkably, it still held 100,000 members in 1922, most with peak wage rates.
But Labor went down, section by section, slowly but surely succumbing to the wage-cutting offensive. The last phase of the industrial war was the “autumn crisis” of 1923, when about 20,000 workers took strike action or were locked out. By December 1923 it was all over. General unions were in severe decline, and trade unionism in agriculture was near collapse. Congress membership had fallen to 175,000 by 1924, and withered to 92,000 by 1929.
Trade unions were not just defeated, they were discredited. In many instances, workers had pressed for tougher action, and then blamed the inevitable retreat on leadership betrayal. Over eighty soviets were declared in 1922, for example, but the ITGWU let them be crushed by the Free State army with scarcely a protest. To have pledged so much and delivered so little led to disillusionment with syndicalism and all that went with the “red flag times”.
In the cruelest twist of fate, the debacle was compounded by Larkin. Psychologically, Larkin never recovered from the 1913 lockout, and it led his egotism to degenerate into egomania. After his return to Ireland in April 1923, he set about restoring his old command of what he regarded as ‘his’ union. Neither O’Brien nor the ITGWU executive were willing to stomach his domineering ways, and with Big Jim it was a case of “rule or ruin”. In June, with the ITGWU steeling itself for the employers’ “big push”, he attacked the union executive and, making little effort to rationalize his action ideologically, launched a campaign of vilification against the ITGWU and Congress leadership that would fester for fifty years.
The Labor Party too paid a price. Its impressive 21 percent of the vote in June 1922—its first general election—was grounded on the post-1917 advance of trade unionism. Over the next twelve months the parliamentary party failed to make itself relevant to the industrial war. The general election of August 1923 saw its vote plummet to 11 percent. Coincidentally, the party’s vote would average 11 percent over the rest of the century. While Labor had known defeat and disillusion before, the depth and scale of the 1923 catastrophe was unique.
What survived of revolutionism in the Labor movement followed Larkin into communism. The Bolsheviks had been very popular in Ireland initially, not least for their opposition to the world war and support for national self-determination. Communism obviously influenced trade unionists in the declaration of soviets, and the ITUC’s foreign policy was markedly pro-Soviet up to 1922. There was also a Bolshevik faction in the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI), which O’Brien revived in 1917. Formed in 1909, the SPI had been led by Connolly from 1910, and it served O’Brien’s purpose to take up his hero’s mantle.
In another reflection of Labor’s pre-occupation with trade unionism at this time, the SPI’s potential was severely neglected. Roddy Connolly, son of James, seized control of the party in 1921 and affiliated it to the Communist International, or Comintern, as the Communist Party of Ireland. Larkin had the communists dissolve the party in 1924 in favor of his own group, the Irish Worker League. He remained more a syndicalist than a Leninist, but he never had much interest in theory in any case, and saw communism as the old class struggle in an apparently more effective format. The Comintern had high hopes of Larkin, and prospects looked good.
When Peter Larkin launched the Workers’ Union of Ireland in June 1924—during his brother’s absence in Russia—16,000 workers, two thirds of ITGWU members in Dublin, defected to the union. There was now a defined communist constituency in Dublin. The Irish Worker League, with some 500 supporters, affiliated to the Comintern. The Workers’ Union joined the Red International of Labor Unions, the Profintern. A further 5,000 workers were affiliated to the “all-red” Dublin trades council—so called for its sympathy with the Bolsheviks—and which, in these suicidally fractious times stood in opposition to the ITGWU-led Dublin Workers’ Council.
The Comintern deemed the 14,000 strong post-Civil War IRA to be another propitious field. There were certainly possibilities of harnessing the foot soldiers of the defeated Labor and republican movements into a new radical force. But Larkin’s personality problems prevented him from making anything of the material at his disposal, and he was powerful enough, in Dublin and Moscow, to ensure that if little could be done with him, nothing would be done without him. Extraordinary wrangles between himself and Moscow culminated in a break with the Comintern and Profintern in 1929. He eventually sought a measure of rehabilitation in the mainstream Labor movement. At a personal level, his retreat from Moscow was timely. Pope Pius XI appealed for a vigorous anti-communism in 1930, and the Irish Catholic clergy responded fiercely, crippling the Comintern’s efforts to re-build a party in Ireland. The window of opportunity between the defeat of syndicalism and the reemergence of a conservative social consensus had closed.
Syndicalism was dead, and its orphan, Irish Labor, inherited some awkward anomalies from the failure to complete the industrial unionist project and from the 1920–22 constitutional settlement. The amalgamateds continued to represent about 25 percent of trade unionists in the Free State, and over 80 percent in Northern Ireland. The ITUC remained an all-Ireland body, but scarcely played any role in the North up to the 1940s. The multiplicity of unions and the amalgamateds remained a serious problem, weakening the labor movement.
Unions enjoyed a recovery in the 1930s. The Sinn Féin split over the Anglo-Irish treaty had led the majority faction to re-form as Cumann na nGaedheal (“the Irish Party”). Another split in 1926 saw moderates breakaway from the rump of Sinn Féin to launch Fianna Fáil (“Soldiers of Destiny”). Politics now assumed the classic post-colonial format, with Cumann na nGaedheal representing comprador elements favoring the continuation of economic relations with the metropole, and Fianna Fáil demanding the reduction of dependency on Britain though industrialization behind tariff walls. The return of a Fianna Fáil government in 1932, with the support of the Labor Party, led to industrial expansion on an import-substitution basis.
However, opportunities for new members generated more interunion rivalry, which became interwoven with rising tension between Irish- and British-based unions. Under government pressure to reform, and worried that Fianna Fáil intended to further its industrialization program on a cheap wages policy, the ITUC considered options for reorganization. A proposal to restructure the ITUC unions into industrial unions was opposed by the amalgamateds and defeated by a largely British union bloc, leading to a split in the ITUC in 1945. While the breach was healed in 1959, significant union restructuring only took place in the 1980s and 1990s—and then due to adverse market forces rather than to industrial unionist ideals.
Viewed in a UK setting, the impact of syndicalism on Ireland becomes not merely intelligible but typical. Syndicalists had the choice of infiltrating existing unions—“boring from within”, the ISEL approach—or forming their own unions. Where the latter policy was adopted, they were usually compelled to operate on the fringes of the existing labor movement, often among economically marginal sectors of the workforce. The Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW’s) strongholds lay in the western states of America among miners and migrant workers. In Canada, a clear division emerged in postw ar unrest between the craft unions, based on the traditional industries of the eastern provinces, and the One Big Union (OBU) which originated in British Columbia and relied on newly organized workers. Farm laborers made up almost half of the Unione Sindicale Italiana’s (the Italian Syndicalist Union’s, or USI) pre-war membership. In South Africa, syndicalists were more successful in organizing outside the mainstream unions than in “boring from within”. As an undeveloped region of an advanced industrial country, semi-integrated in its popular culture, but politically deviant and economically distinct, with employers prepared to accept craft unions but opposed to the unionization of laborers, Ireland offered a very representative location for a mass syndicalist movement.
Where the Irish example compared poorly was in the weakness of its ideological core and theoretical articulation. Its transient popularity relied on a conjuncture of factors: the coincidence of Labor disenchantment with British-based unions, the presence of two exceptional leaders, Connolly and Larkin, in two periods of exceptionally intense class conflict in Europe, the first of which, 1907 to 1914, was profoundly influenced by syndicalism, and the growth of separatist nationalism.
For all that, few national Labor movements can be said to owe their very existence to syndicalism: without it, Ireland, like Scotland and Wales, would have retained a London-centered trade unionism. Shorn of its revolutionism, industrial unionism remained a theme in Irish Labor thinking on strategy up to the 1970s. The last echo of syndicalism was lost in 1990, when the ITGWU and the Workers’ Union of Ireland merged to become the Services, Industrial, Professional, and Technical Union, and Liberty Hall discontinued the badge marked “ITGWU-OBU”.
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