Thursday, 14 December 2017

Song in Remembrance of Malak Jubeily

Malak Jubeily, aged two, killed in a Israeli airstrike on Ghazieh, lying in the morgue at a hospital in Sidon, Lebanon, 2006 (c) Michael Schmidt 2006

A man laying the bodies of two children killed the previous day in an airstrike on a funeral party squints anxiously at the sky as drones and bombers fly over the same cemetery, Ghazieh, Lebanon, Summer War, 2006 (c) Michael Schmidt 2006

As a post-traumatic stress disorder sufferer, you realise some things stay with you for a long time. I wrote the song below six years after I shot the photographs above.


When the spotter drone
first flew overhead
standing there 
in thirty-seven degree heat
I’d died
standing astride 
two children wrapped
in winding sheets inscribed
with hasty Arab prayers 
I knew 
deep in my bones
I’d died
I knew 
deep in my bones
I’d died

In that endless moment
before the bombers came
standing there
sweating down my neck
Looking down
at a grave that was mine
all my days a narrow confine
reduced to cement dust
I knew
I’d never come out
the other side
I knew
I’d never come out
the other side

I knew 
deep in my bones
I’d died
I knew
I’d never come out
the other side
I knew 
deep in my bones
I’d died


Wednesday, 13 December 2017

From Demonic Terrorist to Sainted Icon: The Transfiguration of Nelson Mandela

Given the current dispute over corruption in the multi-million rand funeral of Nelson Mandela, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the rather unique obituary I wrote for him in Daily Maverick in 2013 a few days after his death. The piece was adapted for the concluding chapter in my book A Taste of Bitter Almonds: Perdition and Promise in South Africa, BestRed, Cape Town, 2015.

Mandela in varied representations on the streets of Melville, Johannesburg. Pictures: Michael Schmidt

By far the most interesting part of the trajectory of the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is his inexorable transition in the popular mind from the demonic figure of a feared terrorist to the sainted figure of a beloved icon, though one might, post-demise call him rather a sacred zombie – because we don’t want to let him truly die and prefer him maintained in a metaphorical intermediary limbo between life and death. Here, Michael Schmidt, who hails from a family of artists, an iconoclastic investigative journalist and published non-fiction author who met Mandela on several occasions during his career, refers to film, philosophy, linguistics, modern art and, not least, religion, to construct a forensic meditation on this profound transfiguration. The piece was kindly edited by Jo Davies.

On Friday night, a day after Nelson Mandela died, friends and I were at dinner, discussing his legacy, as no doubt many South Africans were that night. One of my friends told me of her first impression of the man as a young girl of 10, living in the lower middle-class suburb of Mayfair West on Brixton Ridge in Johannesburg.

“When Mandela was released, I saw it on television and I asked my father who that man was. My dad said to me: ‘That’s the Devil.’ And for years afterwards, I had trouble sleeping because I knew the Devil had been released from some sort of prison and was on the loose, right here in South Africa. Years later, I started to realise that Mandela wasn’t so bad and I started to love him - and today consider him a saint.”

Out of the mouths of babes: she encapsulated in her anecdote the transmogrification of this terrifying Devil into someone chummy and likeable. What does this mean for the psyche of South Africans in mourning? The Star’s headline on Friday was “The World Weeps,” and beyond tiny enclaves of white and black extremists, his memory is universally venerated. Long before his demise, T-shirts bearing a design of Mandela’s face with the ring of a glowing halo overhead were sold on the streets of Johannesburg. It is almost impossible – especially during this period of state-sponsored mourning – to find any traces at all, in word or image, of Mandela’s “demonic” origins. True, the giant mosaic mural of his face in Liberation Café in Melville does make him look like a Marvel villain, but this is surely accidental.

Either way, it is clear from all the documentaries, retrospectives, polemics, recollections, and especially in imagery, that Mandela had already ascended to the status of demigod well before his death, so in reflecting on this fundamental change, one has to resort, I feel, to the philosophy at the heart of religious iconography, and especially to modern artists’ reconceptions of the (usually) unacknowledged links between the profane and the sacred. 

Travails of the Messiah: Madiba as Muad’Dib

Underlying this representational shift must be a narrative, an alchemical story of transmutation from the base lead of the political polecat into the pure gold of the “father of the nation.” But to remove the tale from the realm of the conventional religions to give readers some arms-length perspective, I will rather use as my quasi-religious allegory, the science-fiction story Dune, by Frank Herbert, powerfully realised as a screenplay by that master of the weird intersections of reality and psychology, David Lynch.

Our protagonist the young Nelson Mandela is born both at the centre of privilege – and on the periphery: as the scion of the Thembu royal house, he can be expected to lead a comfortable life ensconced in the fastnesses of the Transkei – and yet his privilege is rural, separated by race and space far from the national centres of power. In Dune, our protagonist the young Paul Atreides is the scion of the Atreides royal house and expects a life of privilege, yet his homeworld of Caladan sits on the edge of the galaxy, separated by politics and space far from the imperial centre. Their destinies lie elsewhere: for Paul, the red-dune mining planet of Arrakis; for Nelson, the neon-lit mining town of Johannesburg. 

And so, like all metaphysical tales of transformation, the two young heroes must first embark on a dangerous voyage. Along the way, guided by ethics rooted in the Orange Catholic Bible in Paul’s case and the Bible in Nelson’s and yet increasingly shaped by the harsher disciplines of the Bene Gesserit and Communist orders respectively, wait physical hardship, emotional loss, betrayal, and exile from polite society. These demanding processes will refine them in the fires of perdition, and prepare them to lead armed insurrections by pre-existing forces not of their own creation – the Fremen and the ANC and – from within the very wastes of exile against powerful, callous, militarised settler enemies who avariciously desire to monopolise the economy by controlling the indigenous majorities. 

And it is here that the real transformation begins. For, to be an outcast, is to be demonised, rejected by one’s prior privilege, cast into the wilderness: for both young men, a clandestine life. The external imagery has to change at this point, not only for pragmatic reasons of survival, but to indicate internal processes of self-abnegation for the cause – a critical stage in all canonisations: Paul has to adopt the stillsuit of the Fremen, Nelson, the overalls of a gardener. In these commoner’s clothes, the exiled royals then have to master something larger than themselves: for Paul, the loyalty of the Fremen and command of the sandworm, Shai’hulud; for Nelson, the loyalty of the black majority and command of the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe

Once the journeyman has become the master, the nomenclature and the imagery abruptly shifts to a higher plane: Paul becomes Muad’Dib and the spice-saturated blue of his eyes shows he has transcended his human self, becoming first among Fremen, the Kwisatz Haderach; Nelson becomes Madiba, his and the intense gold of his casual shirts shows he has transcended his humanity, becoming first among free men, the Father of the Nation. But this can only occur at the moment of a transcendent, yet physical victory: for Paul, his ascent to leader of Arrakis, installed in grandeur in the Arrakeen Palace; for Nelson, his ascent as leader of South Africa, invested with pomp in the Union Buildings. From this point on, while their achievements remain driven by temporal and political forces, neither remain mere men, mortality is subsumed by symbolism, and, in their own triumph over travails, they approach divinity.

The Common Root of the Profane and the Sacred

But still, a demon, an outsider, howling in the wastes, does not easily transmute into a saint hallowed at the centre. Surely merely experiencing suffering is insufficient – or the majority of South Africans would likewise be sainted; and surely merely mastering the masses is insufficient – or every skilled politician would be treated likewise. Here, it is instructive to remember the point at which Muad’Dib sees the Fremen warriors practising using his name through their weirding module weapons to destroy enemies: “My own name is a killing word now,” Paul thought grimly. “Will it be a healing word as well?” Madiba’s name was once on the lips of many necklace mob murderers; and yet today it is a healing word. How are we to reconcile this incompatibility, between an uMkhonto we Sizwe that without any doubt drifted into outright terrorism against innocent civilians, and the way the man responsible for initiating its uncivil war is venerated today? 

It helps to reach into the realm of philosophy and the arts: a series of penetrating essays collected by Demetrio Paparoni who teaches at the University of Catania, Eretica: The Transcendent and the Profane in Contemporary Art, Skira, Milan, Italy, 2007, is illuminating. In particular, I draw from the essay Sanctity and Depravity by Roger Caillios in which he notes that many societies see the profane and the sacred as identical, at least at their core or roots: “More primitive civilisations do not linguistically distinguish the prohibitions rooted in respect for sanctity from those inspired by fear of depravity. The same term evokes all the supernatural powers from which it is best, regardless of the reason, to keep a distance. The Polynesian word tapu [taboo] and the Malaysian word pamali designate without distinction that which, blessed or cursed, is subtracted from shared use…” So, the demon that was Mandela and the saint that is Madiba have the same root, and are the same at their core; as a dual entity, he is removed from the shared uses of the common (wo)man.

Lest the reader think I’m making a primitivist argument for Mandela’s metamorphosis into Madiba, Caillios also cites Greco-Roman civilisation, the mother culture of the advanced West, as having a similar profane/sacred binary: “The Greek word hágos, ‘filth’ or ‘depravity’, also means ‘the sacrifice that cancels depravity’. The distinction was effectuated later with the help of two symmetrical words, hághes, or ‘pure’ and enaghés, or ‘cursed’, the transparent composition of which denotes the ambiguity of the original word. The Greek hosioún and the Latin espiare, or ‘expiate’, are etymologically interpreted as ‘causing to exit (from oneself) the sacred element (hósios, pius) that contracted depravity had introduced’. Expiation is the act that allows the criminal [or terrorist] to resume his normal activity and his place in the profane community, shedding his sacred character, deconsecrating himself…” 

The Madiba cult has all the hallmarks of an emergent religion, no matter that it is technically “secular” because it is state endorsed, so here we have a mystery: on the one hand, we have the process whereby to be cursed contains the seeds of purity, this becoming sacred (or to be the outlaw implies knowledge of the lawmaker); while on the other hand, in parallel, the pious sheds his piety, which restores to him his profane humanity (he remakes himself in our image). This binary nature lies, Caillios states, at the heart of all religion, and is never entirely shed, no matter what side one chooses: “This rift of the sacred produces good and bad spirits, the priest and the warlock, Ormazd and Ahriman, God and the Devil, but the attitude of the faithful towards every one of these separations of the sacred reveals the same ambivalence as when they are confronted with its conjoined forms.” Thus, despite Mandela’s transcendence, if we are to be true to history, he remains at root both demonic terrorist and sainted icon, for to deny either is to produce an impossibility (and be untrue to his dualistic essence).

Caillios goes on to muse on the experience of the presence of Godhood: “When St Augustine confronted the divine, he was overcome by a shiver of horror along with a surge of love: ‘Et inhorresco’, he writes, ‘et inardesco’. I shudder and I burn. He explains that his horror comes from recognising the difference that separates his being from the sacred, while his ardour comes, on the other hand, from seeing their profound sameness.” Madiba’s ability to dispense death as commander-in-chief and judgement as elder statesman were terrible to behold, but all the more welcoming for those faithful who drew close enough to shelter from his storm, and in doing so encountered his essential humanity.

An Alternate Sainthood?

Gianni Mercurio’s essay Perfection and Perdition takes us further in weighing up the demonic/saintly duality of Mandela/Madiba. Noting that demon and devil are Greek words, Mercurio charts the transformation of the Devil himself, from his original lowly-ranked Greek status, to his elevated Mediaeval role as anti-Christ seducer of the faithful, inducing them to fall into perdition, to his Renaissance role as “the one who had dared, the great rebel who had challenged the Father in an act of immense courage” via Giambattista Marino and his student John Milton, of “Satan ‘majestic though in ruin’… Satan alone and abandoned. Satan beautiful and cursed” – a clear foreshadowing of Caillos’ accursed purity thesis. 

But Mercurio goes further to show the modern transition of the Devil from romantic outcast to our closest friend: “’O you, the most knowing and loveliest of Angels’, victim of God’s jealousy, is how Baudelaire addressed Satan, appealing to him to ‘take pity on my long misery’. For only he who has been vanquished [as Mandela in prison] feels compassion for the defeated. His heart beats for human beings. God’s heart less so. The fact is, that by living with them, Lucifer has learned to understand them. He knew everything about their nature, sensed their needs and their desires. And being familiar with suffering on this earth, he sympathised with them.” Recognising Mandela’s intimacy and sympathy with our  suffering during his exiled wanderings both draws him closer to us, and raises him above us. 

Perhaps the transition is not that incongruous; perhaps the discomfort of the intimate change experienced by my friend derives not from her perceptual shift of his being from demon to nice guy, but the change was rather from outcast devil to Promethean hero, from the original fallen serpent to Luciferian light-bearer? That’s, however, an easier intellectual and emotional transition to make than Caillios’s cloven sacred profanity – but will probably be harder for the demigod’s acolytes in this predominantly Judeo-Christian country to swallow because it does not sit well with their rigorously sanitised iconography. Nevertheless, whatever one’s perspective, the horror and the love remained indivisible in the man himself.


Safe Havens 2017 Photo Gallery

 As the official Safe Havens 2017 rapporteur, I was delighted to record a performance by stirring endogenous Sámi folk joiker Marja Mortensson here whose work aims at restoring the South Sámi language from racially-enforced obscurity transnationally (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Ukraine) and Norwegian recouperator of banned songs Moddi Knutsen, whose book Unsongs: Forbidden Stories here tells the fascinating tales behind outlawed songs from Mexico to Britain to Israel to Vietnam.

 The International City of Refuge Malmö is host to several great exile talents who I am honoured to call friends: Iranian feminist author Parvin Ardalan (an interview on her stance against gender apartheid is here), Iranian journalist Naeimeh Doostdar (a brief talk on her prison experience is here), Egyptian rai-rock musician Ramy Essam (who is signed with Tom Morelo of Rage Against the Machine, and who this year recorded with the inimitable PJ Harvey on the refugee "crisis" here), and Nigerian gay rights activist-author Jude Dibia (an interview on his book Walking with Shadows, Nigeria's first gay-themed novel, is here). I drive the project to sign on Johannesburg, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and perhaps Windhoek to the rapidly expanding 68-member International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) the website of which is here.

 A new friend of mine is the very smart, erudite and multi-talented Tunisian sound designer Heny "Fusam" Maatar whose exploration of soundscapes ranges from metal to ambient - the latter very evident in his project 53hertzwhale, named after the one-of-a-species whale that sings alone in the north Pacific Ocean - and includes eerily evocative film such as the one he showed at Safe Havens leading into the discussion Post-Revolution Blues, on the way forward after the promise of the Arab Spring has been rolled back by military, Salafist and reactionary forces. Here is an example of his provocative anti-Salafist work.

 Vietnamese singer-activist Mai Khoi has been described as the "Vietnamese Lady Gaga" because of colour-shifting hair and techno hits like Saigon Boom Boom, but she is far more talented and far more hardcore. Barack Obama met with her last year after she stood against the powerful Vietnamese Communist Party as an independent on a pro-democratic ticket - and she later staged a one-woman street demo against Donald Trump. Although her influences include traditional and pop, her rock-blues protest guitar-backed songs like this are potent and searing, earning her the enmity of the security police who have raided her studio, had her evicted from her apartment, and tried to prevent her band The Dissidents from performing - but she refuses to be quiet. 

For sure, Mai Khoi really blew Ramy Essam away with her performance at Safe Havens. Here, Ramy gives Mai a huge hug after she finished playing.

 An older friend is Syrian conceptual artist Khaled Barekeh whose 2015 series of photographs of drowned Syrian and Palestinian boat refugee children, Multicultural Graveyard, was censored by the multinational anti-social corporation known as Facebook (I nickname it Vleisbook in Afrikaans - Fleshbook - for its ethical shallowness and corporatist values). His official website, which showcases his astounding diversity of vision and material formats, from sculpture to multimedia, is here.

 Another older friend from Safe Havens, Afghan director-actor-playwright Monirah Hashemi, who was born in Iran, started theatre training for young Afghan girls in Afghanistan in the early 2000s - against intense opposition from neighbours and religious fanatics who view women in the arts as "prostitutes"; she currently works in Sweden. I wrote about her very moving play about three generations of Afghan women under patriarchy, Sitarah - The Stars, earlier this year on this blog, entitled "Shall I Wait for Darkness to See the Stars?". Her official site is here.

 A fascinating Safe Havens debate on how public visibility affects artists' safety between, from left, Algerian music promoter Sara el Miniawy, Palestinian singer-songwriter Jowan Safadi (who performed at the conference; his charming piss-take on the fact that Sabra Israelis are Arabs too is here), French-US cultural advocate Angie Cotte, Syrian conceptual artist Khaled Barakeh, Egyptian rai-rock musician Ramy Essam (who played an impromptu song borrowing Mai Khoi's guitar), Iranian-Canadian journalist-cartoonist Nik Kowsar (an article of his on desertification in Iran is here), Colombian festival organiser Laura Camacho Salgado, and moderator, migration and arts activist Aine O'Brien.

My workstation at Safe Havens: behind the camera, filming exiled Belarus Free Theatre artistic director Natalia Kaliada speak on freedom of expression in the digital age, with Freemuse executive director Srirak Plipat and the US National Coalition Against Censorship's programme director Svetlana Mintcheva, moderated by freedom of artistic expression researcher Sara Whyatt.


Thursday, 30 November 2017

Radio Freedom's First Recording

When I was a teenager during apartheid, I used to lie awake late at night with my shortwave radio secretly tuned into a forbidden station - the ANC's Radio Freedom. The broadcasts, coming from transmitters in Lusaka, and even further afield evoked an exotically different Africa to the one I lived in, and each episode started with the announcement "This is the African National Congress. This is the African National Congress. This is the Voice of Freedom. The ANC speaks to you! Afrika! Afrika! Mayibuye!" followed by the clatter of an AK47 being fired. It was all clandestine good fun - rewired a decade later in 1991 - the year of the unbanning of the ANC and other South African liberation movements - in the introduction to KLF's hit 3am Eternal on YouTube here. An essay on the historical Radio Freedom is here.

Roll forward another two decades and another African country was caught up in a seemingly endless liberation struggle - Zimbabwe in its Second Chimurenga, this time against a liberation movement turned post-colonial predator. In 2014 I was approached by a lean and hungry young Zimbabwean, Taurai Mabhachi - hungry in both the physical and political senses - who headed a Harare-based NGO. Together, we embarked on a project to get community radio stations - of which Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe had zero - licensed and on air. Although our project was aimed at getting *all* vernacular-language and community-of-interest stations on air, Taurai's Radio Freedom is specifically targeted at a youth audience. Today, after years of going through a maze of potential funders and potential partners - Radio Freedom finally had its first recording session, a podcast hosted by Taurai and myself. 

And thanks to the November 15-21 2017 military coup d'etat that ousted Mugabe - what I have termed the "Continuity Coup" as it reinforces ZANU-PF securocrat rule - the topic of our pilot show was "Democracy & Diversity in light of the Zimbabwean Coup". Our guests included left academic Prof Patrick Bond, veteran former BBC journalist Andy Moyse, former bank treasurer Daniel Ngwira and former Revolutionary Command Council student Dandira Mushangai. We had a few tech issues, but once it has been edited, if it is of broadcast quality, I'll post a link to the podcast - and that will hopefully be the first in a series of ten Radio Freedom podcasts leading up to the mid-2018 Zimbabwean Elections, and a precursor to a more formal, trained cadre of Radio Freedom hosts and field corespondents reporting on the challenges of democratising Zimbabwe. Free the Zim Airwaves Now!


Saturday, 25 November 2017

Anarchist Portrait & Interview Series

This column for Zabalaza: a Journal of Southern African Revolutionary Anarchism from way back in June 2003 was supposed to be the first in a series of vignette interviews with anarchist militants for which I began shooting a couple of black-and-white portraits. I guess it was intended as a portrait-and-text collection inspired by Paul Avrich's Anarchist Voices, Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA, 1995. The powerful and compelling idea for verbatim interviews - allowing people to speak uninterrupted in their own voice without the journalist's interruptions or interpretations - is largely drawn from oral historians like Tony Parker (May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast, Jonathan Cape, London, UK, 1993) and Studs Terkel (The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream, Pantheon Books New York City, USA, 1988). Although this was the only column actually published - and then without the picture - the idea somewhat morphed into my portrait-film-and-text project The People Armed: Anarchist Fighters Verbatim in which I interview anarchist armed struggle veterans from around the world. Leny and Martin kindly acted as my interpreters during Jornadas Anarquistas in Porto Alegre, Brazil. I am honoured that today, I still count as friends and comrades all the people portrayed here.

Leny Olivera, Bolivia © Michael Schmidt 2003

Latin American Voices
(Tinku Youth, Network of Autonomous
Groups, Cochabamba, Bolivia)
Speaking during the Anarchist Days 2
meeting at Porto Alegre, Brazil, 27
January 2003.

I identify as Quechua because my father
speaks Quechua [one of Bolivia's three
major indigenous languages]. I work in a
cultural group, but it's not just cultural: we
also work with social topics. I like to work
there because in our group we do a variety
of things: we work in ecology; problems in
our society; the music that revitalises our
culture. I continue working there because I
think it should be very integral, because at
school I never learned why poverty exists in
all the world, why some people don't have
anything to eat, and many things about our
culture. I think I learned more things on the
streets in my group than at school or worse,
the university. Now I'm studying through a
university but don't think that the things that
I learn - it's simple, technical things - it's useful,
but it's just technical things. It was disappointing
for me because there is no social
consciousness to help our society according
to our career.
I study computer science and it's just
like a tool for me. And other aspects like
social consciousness and other things I
learn in the streets, on marches and going to
the communities - because we also play
music from our communities and we are
learning little by little more things to remember.
And, well, about anarchism, what I
understood about it was that, first in Bolivia
this word is like a mess, it's a bad word in
some of the countries. But for me it's excellent
- but I see also that it's difficult. I couldn't
see a person that was anarchist 100%.
It's difficult to take out all of the structures
that we have in our minds, but it's a good
step to recognise that we have to take it out.
I think it's an important thing, but the problem
is that since we are at school, and they
put in our minds a lot of structures, a way of
thinking with this global system.
It's very terrible; that's why I say that I'm
in the process of destroying those structures.
I believe in anarchism, but I am trying
to be [anarchist] because I should change
more and I'm conscious that I have more
structures [to destroy]. I also see that I have
changed in some aspects too. We don't
have many contacts in Bolivia with groups
that are anarchist so we are just like the little
ones that speak loud about it because it's
about all of us as I told you. The ones that
say they are anarchist, they are also for
example macho; the men have something
that should change more. It's difficult to say
I'm anarchist because it should change
more. So for me it's like this and that is a
good option because we are accustomed to
be guided by someone, to just do what
someone says and we're not free. For
example in Bolivia most of the people think
there should just be leaders to change
something. I think that all of us can do it; it's
more powerful that everyone can act
because all of us can do it. So, we are working
on that but I think it's a process.

 Martin Dalto, Uruguay © Michael Schmidt 2003

Laua Cibelli, Argentina © Michael Schmidt 2003


Thursday, 23 November 2017

Bakunin's Women

Bakunin’s Women: a Review of Mark Leier, Bakunin: The Creative Passion, Thomas Dunn Books, New York City, USA (2006)
- Michael Schmidt, South Africa (2017). This is an lengthened version of my original 2012 article.

As choking cement dust settled over Manhattan in the wake of 9/11, journalists pawing through the wreckage of history for a precedent came across the almost forgotten bombing of Wall Street by Lettish members of the Anarchist Black Cross in 1920 that killed 38 people and injured scores others. It had been an era in which anarchism wore the mantle of most feared sect to the propertied classes (Interpol had its roots in international summits in Rome and St Petersburg in the 1890s to combat anarchism, and an anarchist loner had assassinated US President William McKinley in 1901), the master of disaster was presumed to be long-dead anarchist barricades fighter and counter-Marx polemicist Mikhail Bakunin. 

Bakunin's tumultuous life, often on the run, often in the firing line, had the effect of both increasing his dangerous aura and the influence of his emergent anarcho-communist ideas on the trade unions of the First International – but also fragmenting his writings and so allowing for many distortions by his enemies. With lively prose balanced by a judicious and ultimately fair assessment of Bakunin's life and ideas, his flaws and often fruitful engagements with Marx, Leier has produced the most accessible life yet of this giant figure of 19th Century socialism. 

Bakunin's influence was mass-organisational: the splintering of the International in 1872 saw a tiny Marxist rump of perhaps 1,000 activists scattered internationally totally overshadowed by an enormous anarchist majority (sections in Spain boasted 60,000 members by 1873, and in Italy 30,000 members by 1874), which strength was replicated by further growth under the anarchist IWA's successor Anti-Authoritarian "Black" International, founded in 1881 by Bakunin’s successor, Piotr Kropotkin (sections in Mexico boasted 50,000 members by 1882, and in Holland 188,700 members by 1895 – the year in which the famous French CGT merged with the Bourses du Travail to establish a model that would be replicated as far afield as Senegal and Brazil). 

Mikhail Bakunin “reappeared as a bogeyman after September 11,” as Mark Leier puts it, because the 1920 bombing of Wall Street by the Galleanist anarchist Mario Buda which left thirty dead, 200 injured, demolished the magnate J.P. Morgan's office, and caused $2-million in property damage was the worst prior terror attack in New York, “but his casting as the grandfather of terrorism was an exercise of mystification rather than explanation.”

Bakunin’s towering intellect has always been reduced to caricature of his supposedly chaotic nature. It speaks volumes about the proletarian threat that Bakunin’s ideas posed to power that unlike Marxism, with its state-sponsored press and comfortable academic sinecures, that his complete writings only became available in 2000 thanks to the International Institute of Social History’s multilingual CD-ROM Bakounine: Ouvres complètes.

Given that Leier’s timely biography was published several years ago – part of a wave of new anarchist movement studies emanating from Canada, not least focused on what was perhaps the highest expression of “real, existing anarchism,” the Makhnovist Ukraine – I am not going to attempt a complete review, but rather focus on a key area in the formulation of Bakunin’s thought: the women in his life.

While clearly sympathetic to Bakunin as protagonist, Leier treats fairly with his not very likeable primary antagonist, Karl Marx, to whom all his turbulent life, Bakunin acknowledged a huge debt: Marx “advanced and proved the incontrovertible truth, confirmed by the entire past and present of human society, nations, and states, that economic fact has always preceded legal and political right. The exposition and demonstration of that truth constitutes one of Marx’s principle contributions to science.” Leier also has sympathies for libertarian strains of Marxism, concluding the book by saying that “with the main protagonists now long dead, it may be possible to consider the similarities [between anarchism and Marxism] and find ways to pose the differences as a progressive, dynamic, and creative tension as we confront the problems of the twenty-first century.” 

Lively, accessible and judicious, in essence, Leier’s work is a crucial restoration of Bakunin the thinker, who always tested his theories against the barricades in a manner anathema to the reclusive Marx. What emerges is a long progression from an idealistic pan-Slavism to a rigorously materialist anarchist-collectivism, Bakunin’s evolving praxis continually tested in the fires of revolt and reaction. And the clarity of his thought is revealed to be penetrating, even today. Take for example his comment on speculative capital: “speculation and exploitation undoubtedly constitute a sort of work, but work that is entirely unproductive. By this reckoning, thieves and kings work as well.”

But I want to focus briefly on a group that Leier shows to have been formative in the shaping of that intellect, the women who surrounded him in youth: his sisters Liubov, Varvara, Tatiana and Alexandra, and their friends, the Beyer sisters, Alexandra and Natalie. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Russian academy of the 1830s where philosophy was outlawed because it rejected received wisdom, the creation of reading circles by the most progressive students proved a crucial first step in creating a new post-Decembrist generation of Russian militants. “The two most important circles were one headed and named after Nicholas Stankevich and another jointly by Alexander Herzen and Nicholas Ogarev. Almost exclusively male, the Stankevich circle and the Herzen-Ogarev circle became centres for avant-garde thought in literature, philosophy and politics."

Varvara Bakunin

“According to Herzen and the many historians who have accepted his memoirs uncritically, the circles sprang up spontaneously. More careful historians, however, have noted that they owed much to the sophisticated discussion groups of the Bakunin and Beyer sisters. One reason Bakunin loved his sisters was the intellectual equality they shared, and they proved able sparring partners as he thought and rethought his own philosophy.” The older sisters, Liubov and Varvara, “were more conscious rebels” than their brother and the Bakunin-Beyer circle, properly called, created “the first spaces for provocative discussion” among the new generation that would eventually flower into the nihilist, narodnik, Essaire, maximalist, Marxist, and anarchist strands that would play such key roles in challenging and finally overthrowing the power of the Tsar. Curiously, it was above all the narodniks, whose quasi-anarchist philosophy of “going to the people” that drew an unprecedented number of women into their ranks.

Tragically constrained by the gendered confines of Russian society, Liubov Bakunin died of tuberculosis in 1838, and it was only Varvara who to some extent lived her ideals, following her brother Mikhail abroad and mimicking his wandering, free-thinking lifestyle. But Leier’s work suggests that the Bakunin-Beyer circle and its far-reaching influences is deserving of further serious in-depth study. Certainly, his sisters’ example early confirmed Bakunin in his sexual egalitarianism: women “differing from man but not inferior to him, intelligent, industrious, and free like him, is declared his equal both in rights and in political and social functions and duties.” 

His beliefs were sorely put to the test when he allowed the love of his life, his wife Antonia, of whom he wrote to Herzen “she shares in heart and spirit all my aspirations,” to follow her heart in falling in love with and even bearing the children of fellow militant Carlo Gambuzzi. Perhaps because of this generosity of spirit, Antonia Bakunin “with no prospect of a comfortable or easy life… would stay with the errant anarchist until his death.”

Antonia and Mikhail Bakunin, 1861

After the suppression of anarchism in Russia by Marx’s ideological heirs, it was another woman, the indomitable historian Natalia Mikhailovna Pirumova (1923-1997), who rescued much of the works of Bakunin and Kropotkin from obscurity, and whose brave and tireless work in doing so is credited with the revival of the Russian anarchist/syndicalist movement from 1979. By 1962, Pirumova was working for the USSR History Institute and had already scandalised Soviet academia with her work on Bakunin and Kropotkin in the historical journal Prometey. 

By 1966, she had gathered sufficient material to publish a book on Bakunin which was extended in 1970 and reprinted in the popular Life of Remarkable People series. Despite disgruntled reviews from the official press, she followed this up with a book on the life of Kropotkin in 1972. In this period, in echo of the Bakunin-Beyer circle, she gathered around her not only historians of Russia’s socialist movements, but the Vorozhdeniye (Renaissance) literary group as well as political prisoners including anarchists and socialists who had survived the gulags. A 93-year-old Essaire who attended Pirumova’s funeral in 1997 said that in Pirumova’s presence “we stopped thinking of ourselves as outcasts, forever excluded from society by Stalin”.

It is a distinct irony that when he died, Bakunin himself remained an outcast, his funeral drawing a mere 40 mourners (albeit more than Marx’s), whereas a measure of the movement he helped initiate is given by the fact that Buenaventura Durruti’s funeral, 50 years later riskily held during the aerial bombardment of Madrid, drew 500,000 mourners. In Bakunin’s very last public fray with his pen, the tired old fighter asked only that he be forgotten so that a new generation could take up the torch of liberty. 

Fortunately, while largely deprived of Bakunin’s writings, the militants who built the mass anarchist trade unions that came to dominate the organised working class of Latin America in particular – fully 50 years in Cuba, for instance, before the tiny Communist Party was founded – relied heavily on his praxis, demonstrating to our own age that a libertarian proletarian counter-power is viable and not only a pretty dream. It is for that reason that all students of mass-line liberatory politics should read Leier. 

Natalia Pirumova

* A link to the Bicentenal Conference on Bakunin 1814-2014 held at Priyamukhino, Russia, is here.


Saturday, 18 November 2017

In Black & White: South African Anarchist Experiences of Apartheid.

Trawling though my writings, I came across this vignette written in 2008 for a Latin American journal concerning myself and my friend and comrade Bobo Makhoba who died a year ago (one of his obituaries is here: Bobo Makhoba obit 2016). Bobo was a remarkable human being and one that I am proud to have known, but his trajectory and mine demonstrate the continuity of racialised apartheid differentials in my society: if you are working class and classified "black", your life expectancy is much shorter than if you are lower middle class and classified "white". He was a committed militant anarchist and I miss his dynamic presence in my life.

Bobo & myself at what turned out to be a very influential party-cum-meeting in Dlamini, Soweto, in 2003.

In Black & White: South African Anarchist Experiences of Apartheid  (2008)

Michael Schmidt, a journalist and writer, was born into the comfort of a lower middle-class home in Johannesburg, and was classified white under apartheid law. He was drafted into the South African Defence Force during the Insurrection and states of emergency, which had the unintended consequence of politicising him. Exposure to the naked, murderous power of the state while in the army moved him towards anarchism which he embraced as a student in 1987 and became involved with the Durban Anarchist Federation, one of the semi-clandestine organisations whose militants went on to form the Workers’ Solidarity Federation, the forerunner of today’s Zabalaza (“Struggle”) Anarchist Communist Front. He has been instrumental in the theoretical development of southern African anarchism as well as maintaining the movement’s international relations, not least with Chile.
Schmidt met Bobo Makhoba, an itinerant electrician and soccer coach, at a 20,000-strong social movement march on the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 and together Schmidt and Makhoba were among the founders in 2003 of the ZACF. A decade younger than Schmidt, Makhoba was born into poverty in Soweto, and was classified black. He was politicised by the violent turmoil in the townships in the 1980s and had moved towards anarchism by 2002 in reaction to the ANC’s neoliberal policies. He was instrumental, as a “guerrilla electrician” in helping illegally reconnect some 25,000 houses in Soweto after the ANC-led state cut off electricity supplies in a neoliberal cost-recovery drive. 
Recalling the 1985-1990 Insurrection, the two described their widely differing experiences of violence under apartheid.
Makhoba: “I live in Dlamini, Soweto, with my mother and younger brother. In the ‘80s, things were rough here. The ANC comrades were trying to establish control over Dlamini, which had originally been a stronghold of Azapo [the socialist and black consciousness Azanian People’s Organisation]. Every morning when I went to school, I’d come across the bodies of Azapo people lying in the road who had been murdered by the ANC during the night. It was frightening. Eventually the ANC pushed Azapo out of the area completely. Even today, we struggle to get our own [anarchist] projects running in the area, because the ANC breaks everything down.”
Schmidt: “When I was doing basic training in 1985, a group of us was used as the ‘mob’ against which those training as lance-corporals would hone their riot-control skills. We pelted them with tin cans and they fired at us with blanks; orange smoke substituted for tear-gas, but we had to lie down and play dead for two minutes if we were ‘shot’. One guy took a bead on me and pulled the trigger. Lying there in the dust with the chaos of armoured vehicles and figures running through the orange smoke, I realised that if the scenario had been real and I had been black, I would have been shot dead for throwing a harmless tin can. So I resolved that if ever ordered to open fire on an unarmed person, I would instead gun down the officer who gave the command.” 
Makhoba’s activity with the ZACF subsequently lapsed, mainly because job-hunting took him all over the region, but he remains an active anarchist organiser wherever he finds himself. Schmidt served as the ZACF’s international secretary and an editor.