Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870–1940 : Preface

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(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 :

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 :

(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 :

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 :


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Benedict Anderson
Cornell University

If one decided, in a frivolous moment, to sketch a Borgesian version of Esop’s Fable of the Rabbit and the Tortoise, one would need only to extend their race over the horizon to an ever-receding winner’s tape. The rabbit, even after many naps, would speed past the tortoise again and again. But a rabbit has a short life while a tortoise lives long and will in the end rumble-stumble past his rival’s corpse. Where to? Does he think with Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”?

Today it is not difficult to find very energetic, even if usually (but not always) small, self-described anarchist (or syndicalist) groups around the world, mostly in urban areas. At the same time, there are only a few places left where seriously communist parties still exist. Explaining the colossal phalanx of police and other security professionals guarding the New York Republican convention which ensured Bush’s second presidential nomination, the commissioner told reporters that the real danger did not come from Communists or even djihadi Muslims, but from violent anarchists. From the early 1990s, scholarly interest in anarchism has produced a minor avalanche of excellent studies.

There can be little doubt that this development arose from the decay and collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, China’s headlong rush down the yellow-brick capitalist road, Fidel Castro passing the reins to his septuagenarian younger brother, and Kim Il-sung to his son, and probably grandson too. This cataclysm, along with the fossilization of “social democracy”, has encouraged many kinds of people on the left to look for hope elsewhere, and also reengage with non-Leninist socialist traditions. All the more so, since orthodox Marxist politicians and intellectuals had long cast anarchism, “utopian” rather than “scientific”, into the dustbin of history, and created a good deal of falsified historiography to ensure it stayed there.

What we are aware of now is that anarchism got an early start with the work of Fourier and Proudhon, and was “passed” by Marx and Engels until Bakunin threatened to take over the First International.

Between Marx’s death and Lenin’s sudden rise to power in 1917, orthodox Marxism was in the minority as far as leftist opposition to capitalism and imperialism was concerned—successful mainly in the more advanced industrial and Protestant states of Western and Central Europe, and generally pacific in its political positions. It was rather anarchism (or anarchisms—the outlook was always highly contested, despite the major contributions of Bakunin and Kropotkin) that stole hearts and headlines, first with the wave of spectacularly successful and failed assassinations of heads of states, top politicians and capitalists (from Buffalo to Harbin) under the rubric of “propaganda by the deed”; then by the rise of syndicalism with its signature theme of the revolutionary general strike, discussed by Sorel but in fact first theorized by the anarchists of the 1870s. In his memoirs, Léon Blum, the peaceable former socialist Prime Minister of France, could write that his generation was saturated with anarchist ideas and values.[1]

Lenin was not exactly a rabbit, but his establishment of a MarxistLeninist regime in much of former Czardom shot orthodoxy far ahead of any competition. This was followed by the establishment of the Comintern, the Communization of much of east and central Europe, Mao’s rise to autocratic power, and so on. In the standard historiography, anarchism made its last heroic and tragic stand in the Spanish Civil War. Europe’s anarchism was on its last legs by the end of World War II, and finished off as a mass movement in the aftermath—for the time being at least.

What were anarchism’s early advantages? Certainly not theoretical. Marx’s towering theoretical contributions were widely acknowledged on the left, not least by Bakunin, who graciously called Marx the “supreme economic and socialist genius of our day” (of their relations, he later wrote, Marx “called me a sentimental idealist, and he was right; I called him gloomy, unreliable and vain, and I was right too.”)[2] But in Bakunin and in Kropotkin, and others, anarchism had powerful writers and leaders; in Malatesta it had a charismatic, nomadic political activist.

Its main assets were, I believe, three. First of all was its utopian élan. James Ensor’s masterpiece, the huge painting he completed in 1888 and entitled Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889, exemplified this élan, not only by its hectic dates, but by the huge red banner over the popular crowds surrounding the triumphant Christ, emblazoned with Vive La Sociale, meaning “long live the revolutionary new society being born”, and by the enigmatic, grandfatherly face of the Marquis de Sade in the lower right hand corner. About the same time, a group of Italian anarchists persuaded the elderly Emperor Pedro II of Brazil to make over land sufficient to establish utopian colonies where anarchists could live unmolested as they dreamed. (Unluckily the Emperor was soon overthrown, and his brutal republican successors quickly obliterated these colonias). It was surely also this spirit that made anarchism attractive to so many artists and writers, at least in Western Europe.

Second was anarchism’s positive attitude towards peasants and agricultural laborers, who almost everywhere outside northern and western Europe were much larger in numbers than the urban and industrial working classes. Finally, for a long time, anarchism could be said to be more seriously internationalist than its competitor. This attitude partly arose because anarchism rode the huge waves of migration out of Europe that characterized the last 40 years before World War I: Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles, Jews and so on poured into the New World, round the Mediterranean, and into the empires being created by the Europeans in Asia and Africa. (Malatesta spent years in Argentina and Egypt, for example, while Marx and Engels stayed in Western Europe).

This internationalism certainly had its theoretical side, but more important, it was a matter of experience and struggle in non-European contexts and terrains. Necessarily these first generation activists found themselves often as “foreigners”, and as such bringing the outside international world with them. If and when they returned to Europe, as many did, especially Italians, they brought that extra-Europe experience back home. The main thing was that they did not only work, but they constantly crossed state borders.

It is just here that we see the estimable contribution of the present volume, which focuses on anarchists in the world outside western Europe (except for the case of Ireland): the Caribbean, Peru, Argentina, South Africa, Egypt, then Korea, enlaced with China and Japan, and the Ukraine.[3] In some cases, for example, the Caribbean and South Africa, the migrants could float in on such imperial, or ex-imperial, languages as English and Spanish. But Italians had to deal with Spanish in Argentina, and in Egypt with Greek, French, Arabic and English. Internationalism was only seriously possible if linguistic communication was successful. One could say that anarchists were the most productive translators of the era—out of need. La Sociale was no less significant.

This book offers numerous and fascinating examples of straightforward political activity and organization—unions, federations of unions, strikes, walkouts, demonstrations, meetings, clubs, even occasional participation in electoral politics. But these activities and organizations were also understood as the social bases of the good society to come: mutual help, mutual sociability, loyalty to the comrades, a common vocabulary. But we can see an additional side of La Sociale by looking at Edgar Rodrigues’ Os Anarquistas: Trabalhadores italianos no Brasil,[4] a first hand account of the life of anarchists and syndicalists in the Brazil of that era, which features a long list of plays and “musicals”, staged for anarchist audiences in short-term-rented theaters in Rio and São Paulo. There were also weddings, bars, parks, and so forth. It is just here that one sees the link to the peaceable, isolated colonias mentioned above.

The “African” cases are especially interesting, because the anarchists’ aims were much more difficult to achieve in this regard. Anarchism was brought to Egypt by Italian workers recruited for the gigantic construction project that was the Suez Canal. Direct access to the Arabicspeaking population was a huge problem, quite aside from the culture of Mediterranean Islam. Demotic Greek was a sort of lingua franca in the big cities, especially Alexandria, but Greek wasn’t a Romance language and had its own orthography. Greeks were also not Catholics.

Gorman’s chapter shows beautifully how hardly solidarity was won: by endless translations, written and oral, and constant oral practice. And won it was, with difficulty and perseverance, via “international” unions organizing Arabs and Europeans, multi-lingual meetings and speeches, and even a degree of cooperation with nationalisticallyminded Egyptian intellectuals. The movement was anchored in radical and anarchist networks spanning the three sides of the Mediterranean, linking Europe and the Middle East, led strikes and helped launch communism in Egypt. As an example of its practical internationalism, there is Malatesta’s remarkable involvement in Ahmad ‘Urabi’s 1882 revolt.

Van der Walt’s fine chapter on South Africa shows another set of intractable non-European difficulties: those connected to race. How could young Scottish anarchists and syndicalists reach out to black workers when fearful white workers typically tried to secure their fragile place by forming white-only unions? Borne into South Africa by European immigrants, the anarchist and syndicalist movement never appealed to more than a small section of the whites. Indeed, its main success was when it developed into as a popular, radical, union tradition among the Africans, Colored, and Indians. Sometimes cooperating with nationalists (as did the Egyptians and the Asians), it had no love for the nation-state; it sought the grail of an anti-nationalist mode of anti-imperialism, via the One Big Union.

Northeast Asia is a different story in many respects. Neither Japan nor China was ever colonized (although a substantial part of China was conquered or concessioned), but Korea, from 1910 to 1945 was forcibly included in the realm of the Japanese “Emperor”. There were plenty of Europeans around, but they were soldiers, diplomats, missionaries, teachers, journalists, and capitalists: no workers or peasants. All three countries were “Confucian” to varied extents, but their spoken languages were mutually unintelligible. The editors of this book posit Meiji-Taisho Tokyo as East Asia’s counterpart to Kropotkin’s London. The British capital was safer for anarchists than Paris, Madrid or Rome, and, as we shall see, radical Koreans and Chinese were safer in Tokyo than in Shanghai or Seoul.

Meiji Japan, eager to get fuller access to European philosophy, natural and social science, literature, etc., plunged into a massive endeavor of translation, not only from French and English, but also German and Russian. (Tolstoy, an anarchist favorite, arrived straight from St. Petersburg). Anarchist texts interested both the Japanese police and home-sprung radicals opposed to the authoritarian political regime: the timing is probably significant, since 1870–1939 was the noonday of anarchism and syndicalism in the West.

Japan naturally produced its own influential anarchists and syndicalists, some of high intellectual and moral caliber, and syndicalist unions, though they often came to bloody ends, but immigrants also proved key people, as Hwang nicely shows. Thousands of young Chinese, either sent by the Manchus or shipped by other means, came to study in Japan at a time when the writing of Japanese was still heavily done in kanji. Koreans were also brought to Japan, with the idea that this was a good way to domesticate them and ward off nationalist resistance. A small Japan-educated intelligentsia became visible as early as the late 1910s.

Books prohibited back home were usually available in the metropolis. It should also be said that newspapers played a parallel role. Already in the 1870s a global circuit of telegraphic under-ocean cables was in place, so that literate East Asians had almost immediate access to the Boer War in Africa, the Cuban rebellion in the Caribbean, and near to home the revolution in the Philippines.

What is both touching and instructive in Hwang’s study, and also indicated in Dirlik’s chapter on China, is actually the practical internationalism of the first generation of Korean anarchists, some of whom fled to China and linked up with Chinese comrades in an astonishingly energetic campaign to create La Sociale—schools, workers’ colleges, libraries, cooperatives, militias, refuges and so forth. These days, when Koreans have a reputation for diehard, inward-turning nationalism, Hwang’s account is really poignant. The transnational dimension of “Asian” anarchism is also stressed by Dirlik, who focuses on the role of networks and translocal connections in the making of the movement.

The next part of this book, probably more familiar to readers than the Asian and African sections, consists of four powerful studies of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Americas, though the important North American IWW Wobblies make brief but significant appearances. What is most valuable here is the sharp contrast in experience and praxis that the authors bring out. Biondo and Toledo’s description of radical politics in São Paulo from 1895 until 1935 etches especially clearly the familial tension that could arise between extremist anarchism and its pragmatic relative, syndicalism.

In Europe, the upsurge of syndicalism was mainly a response to the deepening of industrialism and the rapid growth of the urban working-class, as well as the violent state reaction to anarchism’s spectacular “propaganda by the deed”, in the last quarter of the 19th century. The emergence of syndicalist unions in China and Japan (in Korea, these were ruthlessly crushed) was conditioned by similar factors. Syndicalists believed that revolutionary change could only come from the massive organization of trade unions, and their federation in different forms, including the dream of a single “big union” of them all. Their method of action was centrally defined by the strike, local, trade or general.

Anarchists did not ignore the significance of unions, and many played active roles within them. Moreover, the roots of syndicalism lay in the anarchist wing of the First International, and a great many anarchists embraced syndicalism. Nonetheless, a vocal section of anarchists always suspected that these unions were bases for undesirable internal hierarchies, and that, too often, they focused on short-term “economic gains”—higher wages, shorter working hours, and so on—at the expense of general social liberation.

Syndicalism flourished in São Paulo, the sole large industrial center of a Brazil that was still overwhelmingly rural and pre-industrial, and its main concerns were often with the “working man.” In some anarchist eyes, it therefore marginalized women and rural labor, and was not much interested in the general social and cultural transformation of the population. In a country dominated by a tight-knit oligarchy, and foreign capital, and with a very limited suffrage, anarchists and syndicalists were nonetheless united in their hostility to the coalition of oligarchs, capitalists, and the armed power of the state.

Laforcade’s wonderful micro-study of anarchist and syndicalist radicalism in riverine Argentina in the same era forms a nice parallel to the case of São Paulo. It is instructive that he focuses not on industrial workers in the restricted sense, but rather on the longshoremen and sailors employed in coastal and riverine shipping, who held a key strategic position in a country whose internal and external commerce was heavily determined by its unusual geography. Buenos Aires stood near the meeting-point between the Atlantic Ocean and the gigantic Rio de la Plata, navigable for hundreds of miles into the interior, shared with Uruguay and Paraguay, and dotted with the riverine ports through which agricultural exports from the interior overwhelmingly passed in a largely pre-railway era. Waterfront and on-ship strikes had a capacity for inflicting “damage” on the class enemy that was unmatched by any radical group in São Paulo. One consequence was that anarchists and syndicalists found in unionism a powerful weapon, and cooperated and competed on the waterfront for many years.

In both studies, we see the crucial role that immigration played in developing communication with European comrades, especially in Italy, Portugal and Spain. But we are also shown how the experience of being “foreign” created a strong stimulus for assimilation to local conditions and for developing solidarity across ethno-linguistic lines, particularly in the face of official efforts to create a deep divide between “foreign” trouble-makers and loyal, nationalist-minded “citizens,” paralleling, for example, the efforts in Egypt to unite “foreign” and “local” labor.

To the cases of São Paulo and Buenos Aires, Shaffer’s original chapter provides an impressive contrast. He describes and compares two very different types of transnational radical networks that grew up on the fringes of the rapidly expanding US empire in the Americas. The first linked Cuba with Puerto Rico, southern Florida (Tampa mainly), and Panama, that Yankee imperialism snatched out of Colombia’s hands to enable the creation of the inter-oceanic Panama Canal. Small places, without big industrial cities, all controlled by the US after 1903; huge immigration from rural Spain to Cuba in the 1880s and 1890s, and large Cuban emigration to southern Florida and Panama later on. Hence a network in which “language” was no obstacle, but rather a source of solidarity across state lines. In this context, syndicalism was a powerful force, straddling borders, and conflict between anarchist “purism” and syndicalist unionism was rare.

Anarchism and syndicalism had come to Cuba early, with the wave of immigration from anarchist Catalonia, above all. But almost at once it faced the problem of nationalism in a way that is invisible in Brazil and Argentina. Anarchists had defended immigration against creole nationalism, and if they initially hesitated to support Martí’s national revolution against Spanish colonialism, they eventually came round on anti-imperialist grounds, playing a central role. Curiously enough, the American occupation in 1898 allowed the anarchists to develop some favorite traditional themes, the condition of women, especially those working in the tobacco factories of Cuba and Tampa, the pitiable condition of children’s health and education, and so forth. At the same time, bound by the Spanish language it also moved easily across state boundaries, and created a dense network of communication, financial support, and educational activities that crossed over into the southeast tip of the USA and across the Caribbean to the Canal Zone.

Shaffer’s contrasting case developed around and across the border between the US and Mexico, especially once the Mexican Revolution got under way. Here we find syndicalism showing up, especially in the oil-fields along the Caribbean coast and in the largest urban conglomerations. Doubtless, this was partially the result of generally close ties with the syndicalist Wobblies themselves, who included a significant number of native Spanish speakers and well as bilingual Anglos in the American border states between California and Texas, who also were committed to internationalism.

Hirsch’s moving chapter on Peru makes “anarcho-syndicalism” its basic subject. Facing the remote southern Pacific rather than the heavily criss-crossed Atlantic, Peru experienced very little like the vast European migrations into Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba. On the other hand, it had a huge native population, which had long been extirpated in Cuba and Argentina, and been completely marginalized in coastal Brazil. Hence it faced a very different kind of nationalist question— one far closer to that confronting the movement in Egypt and South Africa, where Europeans were a small minority.

The origins of Peruvian anarchism and syndicalism therefore have some features comparable to the three previous Latin American and Caribbean cases, but others startlingly different. On the one hand, it was brought to Peru not by poor émigrés but by an upper-class Peruvian intellectual, Manuel González Prada, who spent 7 years of self-exile (1891–1898) in Spain and France. There he developed close contacts with radical leftists just at the time when syndicalism was in the ascendant at the base and when anarchism still had a strong influence in intellectual circles. On the other hand, at the end of the 19th century, Lima and the nearby port-city of Callao were starting to follow the earlier path of São Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Johannesburg—industrializing big city agglomerations increasingly connected to foreign capitalist investments in mines and other export industries.

In Hirsch’s narrative there are three themes of unusual interest. The first is that, well before any other political group, the anarcho-syndicalists made determined efforts to reach out to, and create solidarity, with the indigenous populations, both in the former Inca capital of Cuzco in the remote highlands and in urban coastal towns where migrations from the interior were beginning. This cannot have been easy, since few people of Spanish descent mastered either Quechua or Aymara, and the cultural gap between the highlands and the coast was truly vast.

Here a comparison is warranted with Brazil and Cuba, as well as South Africa. In the 1880s, Brazil and Cuba were the last in the world legally to end slavery. Shaffer shows how the Cuban anarchists sought to deal with the race question, although Toledo and Biondi do not mention the large population of urban blacks along the country’s northeast coast. Yet the blacks in both countries were far closer in religion and language to the dominant whites than anything comparable in Peru. In South Africa, the indigenous African majority (and African workers in particular) were culturally distinct, yet, as van der Walt shows, the latter were nonetheless championed by and increasingly central in the local anarchist and syndicalist movement.

Second, Hirsch underlines the Peruvian radicals’ close ties with their counterparts in neighboring Chili—at a time when the governments of the two countries were ferociously hostile to one another. Finally, the author underscores the serious efforts to empower and succor women, especially women workers, as well as to carry out the traditional anarchist endeavors to create a new culture by building schools, pamphleteering, literacy campaigns, and all the sociability characteristic of La Sociale.

Why is there a chapter on Ireland in this book? Morphologically, it can hardly be called a colony in the standard sense, parallel to, say South Africa, Indonesia, Syria, or Mozambique. It had its own parliament in the 18th century, and after the Reform Act and the end of legal discrimination against Catholics, both happening in the 1830s, it had a powerful electorally-based presence in Westminster. From the 18th century on some of the most outstanding writers in the UK were Irishmen too, including Swift, Burke, Sheridan, Wilde, and Joyce. Immigration into Ireland from Britain was negligible, while Irish emigration into Britain (and the USA) from the 19th century on has been massive. By 1900, only a very small minority, in the far west of the island, spoke Gaelic rather than English. What marked most of the island off from Britain was the attachment to an often cruelly persecuted Catholicism and its poverty-stricken agricultural economy. It was one of the earliest European places where a militant nationalist movement was born.

O’Connor’s sober text makes the link, not through anarchism (which is not much mentioned) bur rather through syndicalism, even though, by his own account, few Irish worker radicals called themselves syndicalists. It appears in the decade before World War I, at a time when syndicalism was a major social force in Catholic Western Europe— France, Italy, and Spain, and when the Wobblies were a household word in the USA to which so many Irish people had fled during and after the great famine of the 1840s. It was also inextricably linked to the rising mobilization of Irish nationalist identity, and hostility to British domination—even of the local branches of powerful trade unions controlled from across the Irish Sea.

O’Connor’s work shows us some parallels with South America, and to an extent South Africa—radical unions centered in the big commercial and industrial port-cities of Belfast and Dublin; and the strategy of seizing for workers’ control, not so much of factories, as of the arteries of transportation, shipping and railways above all, in an economy dependent on the export of agricultural products, as well as cattle and horses. In syndicalist fashion, it was thought possible to create a powerful central transport workers’ union which could then expand to include smaller unions and eventually agricultural labor. Hence, the birth of the Wobblyish goal of One Big Union.

The rapid rise of radical Irish syndicalism intersected with the onset of the hitherto largest and bloodiest war in human history, which provided an opportunity or two for armed rebellions against London. First came the hopeless Easter Uprising of 1916, which charismatic syndicalist labor leader James Connolly quixotically joined with a few hundred followers, leading to his execution. Then, in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice, came the reinvigorated IRA’s guerrilla war for independence, which ended with the independence of the Catholic two thirds of Ireland, and London’s continued control of Protestant Ulster. Syndicalist labor played only a minor role in the war, and then faced the determination of the dominant Catholic bourgeoisie to cement its power, and the massive hostility of the Catholic Church to any kind of radicalism, especially as Lenin was now in power in the Soviet Union. Yet it was a potent force.

Finally, and this is a lovely surprise, there is a brilliant chapter by Shubin on the anarchist movement led by the Ukrainian Nestor Makhno from Czardom’s collapse in 1917 to its crushing by Lenin and Trotsky in 1921 (almost the same period as that between the Easter Uprising and the War for Independence in Ireland). Shubin tells the reader that early Russian anarchism grew out of the narodnik movement of the 1860s and 1870s, but was completely destroyed by the Czarist police, and was only revived a generation later, with strongholds, especially in the Ukraine. Literate Russians (in the broad vague sense) were certainly aware of the Russian roots of contemporary anarchism—Bakunin and Kropotkin—but their traces are only dimly visible in this account.

The uniqueness of Makhno—for this book—is that he came to power in large parts of the Ukraine thanks to an organized armed force which he led with brio. The core of this armed base may explain why he was usually hostile to Ukrainian nationalists, who were notoriously anti-Semitic as well as navel-gazing. The men and women who comprised the Makhnovist army were ethnic Ukrainian and other peasants, some urban workers, as well as local Jews and even a substantial number of Cossacks, whose own ethnic origins were a wild mélange of different linguistic and ethnic groups. (Yet the Czars had often used the Cossacks for pogroms against the Jews). Like the movements in China, Cuba, Egypt, Ireland, Peru, South Africa and elsewhere, it sought to organize beyond nationalist categories.

Makhno’s army was partially made possible by Berlin’s pulverization of the Czar’s armies, ending with Lenin’s and Trotsky’s signing the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk to prevent further German incursions, especially in the Ukraine. Germany’s own collapse towards the end of 1918, let loose a vast swarm of men with weapons and military experience in the old empire, for Makhno, as well as the Bolsheviks and Whites, to recruit.

The immediate onset of the Civil War gave Makhno further room to maneuver, between Reds and Whites—for a while. Shubin gives two striking examples of how Makhno used his military power beyond the battlefield. Anti-Semitic killers, rapists and looters, even when they appeared in his own army, were liable to execution out of hand. At the same time, Makhno ordered a massive distribution of land to the peasants and agricultural laborers well before the Bolsheviks passed similar decrees. Without military power, this distribution was scarcely possible. Only in Manchuria in the late 1920s among the Korean forces, and then in the 1930s, in Civil War Spain, did anarchism have comparable power and opportunities.

One crucial thematic throughout this book was the rise of nationalism—in Canton, Tokyo, Seoul, Odessa, Dublin, Havana, Cairo, Barcelona and Cape Town—in the springtime of anarchism. For all its genuine internationalism, anarchism had to deal with a force which it did not wholly comprehend, and had some good reasons to suspect. Alliances, as this book shows, were possible in many places, perhaps especially where anarchists were themselves “natives.” But it was a good deal harder where anarchists and syndicalists had left their native lands. Still, they adapted. In the chapters on Latin America we can observe them making international links, for example, between Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, Chili and Peru, and in Cuba and Spain. In China, Cuba, Korea, Ireland and Ukraine, they played an important role in “independence” wars.

And now? The editors of this book begin its time-frame in around 1870 and close it in 1940. Readers will recognize 1940 as the year after the bloody triumph of Franco’s armies in Spain (and the first year of fascism’s military domination of most of Europe). Was the Spanish Civil War perhaps the last international war? Volunteers from many places fought on both sides—South Africa’s poet Roy Campbell for Franco, France’s André Malraux for the dying Republic. This book shows, in a poignant sentence or two, something truly amazing— young Chinese, anarchists and not, joining the Republic of Spain’s struggle on the other side of the world.

But in fact, as these chapters also show, classical anarchism was entering a relative decline from the late 1920s, perhaps because it usually eschewed the ruthless discipline and centralization promoted by the Comintern. In an age of mass militarization, vastly enhanced police power aided by technological innovation, and militarized nationalisms, anarchism appeared to have less and less relevance. In the subsequent era of the Cold War, neither of the opposing blocs, which also included satellites in the ex-colonial world and satellite parties, paid much attention to anarchism—consigned by historian Eric Hobsbawm, with some teardrops of nostalgia, to the category of “primitive rebels”. Not a single post-World War II nationalist revolution was led by anarchism (although in some, like Korea, it still played an important role)—unsurprisingly since all these movements aspired to become “nation-states” within the United Nations, no matter what their ideological orientation.

It may be that this situation was a kind of blessing in disguise. This year, for the first time, South Africa, ruled by former eminences of the nationalist ANC (African National Congress), with the support of the Communist Party, has been designated the most unequal society in the world, narrowly outpacing the traditional “champion”, Lula’s Brazil. Ireland is virtually bankrupt, Egypt is in ruinous shape under the endless dictatorship of Mubarak. Neither La Kirchner’s Argentina, Garcia’s Peru, “Orange” Ukraine, gerontocratic Cuba, nor deeplydivided Korea offer much reason for optimism. But anarchism and syndicalism cannot in any way be blamed.

In Paris, in May 1968, one of the student activists’ most famous slogans was: “May the last capitalist be strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat”. Behind the Roger Corman imagery we can see something inherited from the time of Proudhon and Bakunin: hostility to the state, any state, as a hierarchical institution of enormous power with an unappeasable hunger for more of it. Another slogan was: “Liberty for the Imagination”, with its retro-echo of Lennon.

Anarchism in its heyday would have been delighted with this kind of rhetorical effervescence. The US of the short 1960s created, probably without much memory of American anarchism, Make Love Not War, with the scent of La Sociale around it. Old anarchists were often strong about Free Love, at least in principle, even if in practice it was much messier than they had expected. Nonetheless, “liberation” for women, then a bit later for gays and lesbians, as well as oppressed ethno-linguistic minorities, drew on anarchism’s utopian élan and adhesion to the idea of self-rule by smaller, head-to-head communities and friendly “horizontal” relations with others of the same type.

Meanwhile, the world was changing rapidly in ways that partly reverberated with the world of 1870–1940. First and foremost was the tsunami of cross-national migrations after World War II, no longer mainly from the North to the South but vise versa, driven from behind by fear and misery and drawn ahead by hope and capitalism’s hunger for cheap labor. We can see here certain reflections of themes dominating this book. Poor Chinese learned Spanish, Indonesians Japanese, Filipinos Arabic, Mozambicans Xhosa or English, Turks German, Ivoiriens French, and so on.

But the processes did not work only in one direction. Apichai Shipper’s fine recent Fighting for Foreigners: Immigration and its Impact on Japanese Democracy book shows these processes perfectly.[5] While the scornful Thai, Persian, Indian, Filipino and Indonesian national embassies did less than nothing for their despised fellow-citizens, especially if they were illegal immigrants, and the Japanese national state, the mega-corporations and the yakuza exploited and abused them, it was precisely a fascinating mélange of ordinary Japanese who came to their aid, perhaps as in an anarchist’s dream-world: unions, angry lawyers and doctors, local governments, church-people from the Christian minority, NGOS and so on. The immigrants’ national solipsism was also diluted in many ways, not least because the Filipinos came to understand their Bengali opposite numbers as in the same boat and helped by the same dedicated Japanese, not abstractly in the manner of “human rights rhetoric”, but with human solidarity and a good nationalist shame at how “Japan” was exploiting these wretched of the earth.

Second was the communications revolution of the 1990s, paralleling the telegraphic revolution of the 1880s, which colossally advanced the speed and depth of global communications, not only for national-state surveillance agencies, but for anyone who was literate and had cheap access to internet cafés. Once again, there was a vast need for translation, since the cross-national networks worked mainly with the “grand languages” of our time, Anglo-American English, French, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, and so on. What is interesting here is recognition. Leftists, gays and lesbians, workers, feminists, and ecologists knew they belonged to globality, but this was something new for minorities threatened with extinction, for which the story of Chiapas became a template for armed, militant autonomy within a bleached out nation state.

Third was the challenge of electoral, mediatic democracy and the “regime” of human rights. Even in the time of classical anarchism electoral democracy, rare as it then appeared, was a theoretical and practical problem. British experience, also German and French, had shown that left-wing pressure, expressed through electoral channels, could create, through national laws, changes that a hundred strikes could not easily emulate. Protection of women and children from appalling abuse in mines and factories, safety measures, later insurance, recognition of unions, wage arbitration, and so on. But these changes were embedded in “law”, and enforced (or not) by the national state in the form of proliferating bureaucracies: end product, the post-World War II welfare state. “Relax, we’ll take care of you”, so to speak, emphasizing the obverse pronouns.

The story of “human rights” offers certain parallels. As originally proposed by Amnesty International, classical anarchism would have loved the idea and its original agent: non-state and genuinely international, even if its’ HQ was in post-imperial London and its guiding spirit an Irish politician. (Indeed, Kropotkin saw the Red Cross and lifeboat associations as examples of an emergent anarchist-communist tendency). The still small secretariat had exemplary rules, of which the most important were that no HQ researcher could study or care for his or her own country of origin, nor could AI support-groups around the world. The disaster for AI was being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “Human rights” soon after became the masking slogan for all kinds of Machiavellian military interventions (as well as cynical noninterventions) by the dominant Western powers, led by the United States. Once again, “leave it to us”.

Last was the transformation of finance capital itself, under the motto of neo-liberalism. In former days, people in the Caribbean, and Central and South America could be sure that United Fruit’s violent successes were American. Whatever its cross-national reach, giant capitalism was still national at its roots: thus it was something which local nationalisms could combat, if they wished, under the flag of anticolonial nationalism’s traditional opposition to imperialism.

Meanwhile finance capital, at least in part, moved on. One has to consider an imaginary (but exemplary) United Fruit, whose headquarters are still in Boston, but whose major shareholders are Saudi Arabian princes, Swiss bankers, United Emirates sheikhs, American insurance companies, Japanese conglomerates, and so on, with, say, Indian CEOs. Meantime, the family that built United Fruit vegetates on hedge funds. In fact, Marxist theorists and anarchist activists had long emphasized the transnationality of capital. Nonetheless, perhaps in the grip of old-style anti-(national) imperialist nationalism, they did not imagine the situation we are faced with today.

The beauty of this book is that it shows what classical anarchism, and its progeny, syndicalism, bequeathed to our dyspeptic times. Exemplary courage, theoretical contestation (which lasts longer than theoretical certitude), concerns about how to live freedom, internationalism from experience, not from libraries, a skeptical view of the limits of nationalism, no matter how anti-imperialist, the building of transnational and transregional networks, a commitment to socio-cultural emancipation and grass-roots level organization, enmity toward “don’t worry we will take care of you” welfare bureaucracies, and of course utopias, over the rainbow.

Classical anarchism arose in an era when ultimate progress seemed assured; one could say it was “simply” a matter of the hopeful struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors. Dystopia was off the screen. Today’s anarchism lives under the sign of disaster—global warming, extinction of species and languages, and sauve-qui-peut-ism of every kind on. Let’s hope the tortoise can keep on truckin.’

References cited in text

Aldred, Guy, (ed.), Bakunin’s Writings. Indore/Bombay: Modern Publishers/Libertarian Book House, 1947.

Rodrigues, Edgar, Os Anarquistas: Trabalhadores italianos no Brasil. São Paulo: Global editora e distribuidora, 1984.

Shipper, Apichai, Fighting for Foreigners: Immigration and its Impact on Japanese Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Ungersma Halperin, Joan, The Artist and Social Reform: France and Belgium, 1885– 1898. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961.

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