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.

[ENDS]

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 anarkismo.net editor.

[ENDS]

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Unborn


UNBORN
© Michael Schmidt, 2016

We cannot die 
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
Your golden chalice
                                drips with malice
We stare into the sun

We speak in burning archives
Ashes drift from our mouths
They carry on 
                       the furnace winds
Away from Alexandria
Blood seeps from our wounds
Blue-shifts down Luxor’s aisles
Where jackal-prints
Mark the trepidations 
                                  of the dead

We chant long starless nights
Pleiades shudders at our drums
We were before they crawled
With feet afire
                       we walked the sand-drifts
Before they raised the stones

We recite subterranean passions
Dying flowers fall from our hair
Sauropods hear our call
Coil their necks around your masts
Drag you to abyssal gloom

We cannot die
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
Your golden calf 
                           your epitaph
We stare into the sun

Our crocodiles roil in black oil
Their eyes behold your flesh
Nephthys walks the land
Nebulae in her hand
Neither scimitar nor chisel
Shall inscribe 
                       our obsidian night
We are original before there was sin
We are what the dragons warn you of

We cannot die
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
Your nailéd godhead 
                                  faceless in a crowd
We stare into the sun

We sing cemetery dirges
With lighted hearts and scented lips
Snows fall from our brow
Their delicate mandalas 
                                       fuel tsunamis
Our arms circumscribe your fate
You rot abandoned at our gate
We are the executed in revolt
Against the delirium of the stars

We cannot die
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
The undead king 
                            our offering
We stare into the sun
The undead king 
                            our offering
We stare into the sun
The undead king 
                            our offering
We stare into the sun

[ENDS]

Friday, 10 November 2017

Anarchists in the October Revolution


In this year of celebrating the centenary of the great October Revolution in Russia, it is often forgotten that anarchists and rank-and-file Bolsheviks attempted a social revolution in July 1917 - but that the Bolshevik leadership was unprepared and so it disrupted the attempt. By doing so, the red elite was clearly signaling its willingness to risk losing the impetus of revolution entirely and so permanently surrendering the initiative to the reactionaries purely because they felt they weren't sufficiently in charge of events - a telling character flaw that would become devastatingly dominant in the subsequent Bolshevik dictatorship.

Things began to heat up in June 1917, as anarchist participants in the events Senya Fleshin and Molly Steimer later wrote: “As is known, the government of [the Social Revolutionary Alexander] Kerensky was moving quicker and quicker to the right, into the arms of the bourgeoisie and reaction. The workers responded with a protest demonstration, aimed against both the war which keeps dragging on, and against the generally treacherous policy of the right SRs. Anarchists take an active part in all of these protests; their black flags fly in the foreground. Armed, with their ranks closed, singing the anarchist anthem, they march in the streets of Petrograd."

The Bolshevik leaders warned the garrisons against taking to the streets, and yet on 3 July 1917 there was finally a rising in Petrograd, centred on revolutionary workers, soldiers and Kronstadt sailors. The immediate cause of the rising was the government’s unpopular call for a new offensive in World War I, and the fears of the anarchist-dominated 1st Machine-gun Regiment that it would be sent to the northern front as a means of containing their revolutionary zeal. The Bolsheviks vacillated on the question, provoking a split between the party leadership and what historian Marc Ferro calls “the vanguard, where Bolsheviks co-operated with anarchists, and in July there was conflict”. Many Bolshevik leaders like Vladimir Lenin were in the countryside when the revolt broke out. Among the most notable of the agitators was the Belorussian anarchist-communist tinsmith Iosif Solomonovich Bleikhman (1868-1921). Converted to anarchism while in the United States in 1904, he was jailed by the Tsarist regime on his return to Russia, only being liberated along with many political prisoners during the bourgeois February 1917 Revolution which toppled the Tsar and installed Kerensky. Bleikhman became a leading light in the Petrograd Anarchist Communist Federation (PACF), which was founded in April 1917, and a writer for its paper Burevestnik (Stormy Petrel) and for Kommuna (Commune), paper of the Petrograd Anarchist Federation (PAF), which had been founded in 1906, surviving in clandestinity for a decade. 

The Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky condescendingly describes Bleikhman – calling him Bleichman – but is unable to avoid the fact that Bleikhman’s fiery oratory matched the aspirations of the revolutionary soldiers in particular:  "… the anarchist Bleichman, a small but colourful figure on the background of 1917, with a very modest equipment of ideas but a certain feeling for the masses – sincere in his limited and ever inflammable intelligence – his shirt open at the breast and curly hair flying out at all sides. Bleichman was greeted at such meetings with a certain amount of semi-ironical sympathy. The workers, it is true, treated him somewhat coolly, but the soldiers smiled delightedly at his speeches, nudging each other with their elbows and egging the orator on with pithy comments. They plainly liked his eccentric looks, his unreasoning decisiveness, and his Jewish-American accent sharp as vinegar. By the end of June, Bleichman was swimming in all these impromptu meetings like a fish in a river. His opinion he had always with him: It is necessary to come out with arms in our hands. Organisation? ‘The street will organise us.’ The task? ‘To overthrow the Provisional Government just as it overthrew the czar although no party was then demanding it.’ These speeches perfectly met the feelings of the machine-gunners – and not theirs alone. Many of the Bolsheviks did not conceal their satisfaction when the lower ranks pushed forward against their official admonition."

In other words, the rank-and-file Bolsheviks, like the soldiers, were more in tune with anarchist-communism than with Bolshevism. Of course, Bleikhman, as a PACF militant, believed firmly in organisation, but was indicating that the revolution was not the preserve of specific organisations, but rather of the popular classes as a whole – an idea that was anathema to the Bolsheviks who had made a fetish of the dominant role of the hierarchical vanguard party. Bleikhman addressed a large gathering of soldiers (including the machine-gunners), sailors and workers, saying, according to Ferro, "We want to overthrow the government, not to hand power to the bourgeois soviet, but to take it ourselves."

Ferro said the slogans that won the day, however, continued to back the soviets. He quotes an unpublished Petrograd archive document that “displays the grassroots unity of anarchists and Bolsheviks” who set up a joint Provisional Revolutionary Committee (VRK) on the eve of the revolt: "One witness said that Bleikhman was spoiling for a fight, being in an excited condition, and telling the soldiers that they could count on the workers and sailors, for they would join in if there were a rising. The soldiers who were there said, ‘Yes, go ahead, we’re ready for it.’ The machine-gunners were nervous, for they had to strike the first blow…"

The historian Malcolm Archibald recalls the crucial role of the anarcho-insurrectionist Maria “Marusya” Nikiforova in the uprising: “The participation of sailors from the nearby Kronstadt naval base was crucial and the anarchists put together a team of agitators to persuade the sailors to take part. Having recently arrived in Russia, Marusya was one of the anarchists who went to Kronstadt. She gave a series of speeches on the huge Anchor Square to crowds as large as 8,000 to 10,000 sailors, urging them not to stand aside from their brothers in the capital.” Under the aegis of the VRK, Bleikhman and various Bolsheviks were to lead the machine-gunners (and no doubt many PACF and Bolshevik militants) and arrest Kerensky and the Provisional Government ministers, occupy the telephone exchange and the railway station, while the workers would march on Kronstadt and meet up with the sailors. But the Bolshevik leadership and many in the Petrograd Soviet were dead set against the revolt, believing it to be premature, and tried to persuade the soldiers to back down, but instead the demonstration swelled as armed workers joined the soldiers’ march on the city centre. 

However, it failed to detain Kerensky and the demonstration petered out as participants started to return home, confused by the in-fighting in Bolshevik ranks. Some regiments were against pressing the advantage, although the Kronstadt sailors still had their blood up, so the following morning, Bleikhman again led an armed column on the Tauride Palace where both the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government’s Duma were headquartered, this time joined by the famous Left SR Maria Spiridonova. At the Tauride, as Ferro notes, demands were put forward for the release of an anarchist sailor arrested at the PAF headquarters Villa Durnovo, and for the Soviet to take power from the government. Trotsky was heckled by sailors angry at his support for the dithering Soviet. Fighting broke out between insurrectionaries and loyalist troops. But three regiments brought in from the front to defend the Soviet (and ironically, by doing so, the government) finally routed the rebels.

The “July Days” were followed by state repression and the arrest of anarchists and Bolsheviks. Ferro inaccurately claims that the anarchists disappeared “as a motive force” after the revolt was defeated, but in the aftermath, many Bolsheviks as well as anarchists were forced into hiding or even exile (Lenin himself was battling against the smear that he was a German spy). The right-wing Kadets and the industrialists gained in confidence. Ferro quotes the anarchist historian of the revolution, Voline, describing the white reaction: "In the name of the [bourgeois February] Revolution, the secret police has come to life again, the individual’s liberties have been suppressed, and the old atrocities of the police chiefs will be started again… in the name of the Revolution, the gates have been opened to the most hideous counter-revolution."

Fleshin and Steimer recalled the insurrection so: “Then came the famous July Days. Of course, Bolsheviks now omit to mention that anarchists were at the time fighting, taking soldiers out [into protests] and made speeches against Kerensky’s gangs alongside them, and then paid for that with prison terms. And only anarchists, of all the revolutionary organisations. The July defeat drove anarchists and Bolsheviks underground. [The PAF newspaper] Commune is published clandestinely. But Voline still delivers his lectures on the Vyborg side [Petrograd's factory district] with huge attendance by workers; it is still possible to hold rallies.” 

Archibald writes: “The government began hunting down the Bolsheviks and anarchists. Some of the Bolsheviks, including Marusya's friend [the Bolshevik] Alexandra Kollontai, ended up in prison while others escaped to nearby Finland. Bleikhman was given sanctuary by the Kronstadt sailors who protected him from arrest. Marusya decided it was a good time to return to Ukraine and help revive the anarchist movement there. In July 1917 she arrived back in Aleksandrovsk [Oleksandrivsk, Ukraine], after an eight-year odyssey which had taken her around the world.” She would go on to command a Black Guard detachment that liberated four Ukrainian cities and installed left-wing revolutionary soviets, helping create the space in which the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine (RPAU) would rise and initiate the anarchist-inspired Ukrainian Revolution. 

The July Days events merely hardened the resolve of many to overthrow the Provisional Government, and underlined the growing gulf between the Provisional Government and large sectors of the popular classes, and the deepening polarisation inherent in dual power between the soviets and the government. Subsequent moves by General Lavr Kornilov, supreme commander of the armed forces from July, to seize power and create a dictatorship created further distrust and spurred the growth of the Red Guards, Black Guards and military soviets. When the social revolution finally succeeded in October 1917, anarchists again played key roles.

Despite their near-fatal vacillation during the July Days, the Bolshevik leadership was now confident that the Provisional Government could be overthrown, a view shared by many anarchists. A series of meetings in the Bolshevik Party saw Lenin win support for the idea of an insurrection, which was subsequently endorsed by the Petrograd Soviet. The uprising was organised through the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, headed by Trotsky, and made up of forty-eight Bolsheviks, fourteen Left SRs, and four anarchists: Vladimir “Bill” Shatov, Anatoli Zhelezniakov, Efim Yartchuk and Henri Bogatski.

On the night of the 25th of October, the Military Revolutionary Committee and its allies made their move. Petrograd and its Winter Palace were famously taken after brief fighting – the anarchist Anatolyi Zhelezniakov leading a contingent of sailors in the assault – and while the rising in Moscow was bloodier, it too was as successful. Fleshin and Steimer recalled: “But then comes October. Again, anarchists are alongside the Communists, everywhere, in the [Winter] Palace Square, at the storming of the Pavel Military School. Anarchist Anatoli Zhelezniakov is one of the chief dispersers of Chernov’s talk shop [the Constituent Assembly], anarchists are at Tsarskoye Selo [a suburb south of the city, now called Pushkin], where Kerensky is finally repulsed [during the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising]. Anarchist [Iustin] Zhuk – a political convict who served his hard labour sentence in Shlisselburg – leads a Shlisselburg workers’ detachment to guard the Smolny [Soviet headquarters] and then to Tsarskoye Selo to meet Kerensky."

The day after the storming of the Wnter Palace, Lenin was able to announce to the Second Congress of Soviets, then meeting in Petrograd, with Zhelezniakov as a Kronstadt Soviet delegate, that the Provisional Government had fallen and that the soviets were now in power. Several attempts to overthrow the Petrograd Soviet, and restore the Provisional Government were swiftly defeated by Red Guards and Black Guards. The anarchist-dominated Dvinsk Regiment, for example, decisively defeated an attempt at counter-revolution by the Kadets. It was a moment of incredible hope, when all the future seemed open. The soviets and factory committees were in charge, the Red Guards and Black Guards patrolled the streets, “workers’ control” and even self-management seemed the model of the future, and the old Russia, with its autocracy and repression and hunger seemed dead at last, blasted away by the blaze of revolution. 

Writing the best eye-witness account of the Russian Revolution, the book Ten Days that Shook the World, US communist John Reed, who was close to the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, riding to Petrograd in a truck loaded with Red Guards and driven by a grizzled worker, recalled dawn breaking that fateful day: "The road was crowded with the proletarian army going home, and new reserves were pouring out to take their places … Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the capital, immeasurably more splendid by night than by day, like a dike of jewels on the barren plain. The old workman who drove held the wheel in one hand, while with the other he swept the far-gleaming capital in an exultant gesture. ‘Mine!’ he cried, his face all alight. ‘All mine now! My Petrograd!’"

[ENDS]

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Italian Season in South African Politics


Michael Schmidt, October 2016

With the new pattern of coalition rule now established in several of its municipalities including the metros of Tshwane, Joburg and Nelson Mandela, South Africa has now fully entered its “Italian Season,” a period of dramatic realignment in the face of state inertia, ruling party atrophy, and social unrest.
The season in Italy that I am speaking of occurred four decades ago, in a very different time and space, heavily inflected by the Cold War, but nevertheless, to compare Italy over 1962-1969 to South Africa over recent years is instructive, for the similarities are startling.
In 1962, Italy gained its first centre-left government since 1947. The Italian political spectrum had been dominated in the post-war era by the centrist DA-like Christian Democrats (DC), but possessed powerful ANC-like Socialist (PSI) and Communist (PCI) parties.
The PCI, though declined to 1,540,000 members by 1966, remained a mass party (the SACP probably peaked at only 30,000 in the 2000s). Unfettered to a nationalist movement, unlike the SACP, the PCI nevertheless held strong sway within the COSATU-like CGIL union confederation, alongside the Socialists, which, like the ANC, had also suffered two splits in the previous two decades (its United Proletarian splinter, the leftist PSIUP, can stand in here for the EFF).
Where the PCI and the SACP are similar is that, though the SACP is in power via the ANC, and the PCI remained outside of power except in the cities of the “Red Belt” of Emilia-Romagna, they were both, in their relative ages, riven by internal conflict between traditionalists and social democrats, and had become viewed by the young working class as dead letters because of their integration into the system.
The year 1962 heralded what is termed “the opening to the left,” in which a coalition of the Social Democrats and Republicans pushed DC rule to the left with several attempts at modernising structural reform, in a similar sense to the quasi-socialist RDP under Mandela. 
As with democratic South Africa’s golden age, this was a boom period for the Italian economy, but the Socialists signally failed to make hay while the sun shone, and their structural reforms were soon replaced with watered down policies over 1963-1968 by coalition governments dominated by the Socialists that dissatisfied the newly-urbanised proletariat who had stood most to gain by the “opening” (one is reminded here of GEAR, then ASGISA). 
In the 1960s, the Italian state was prey to practices that tended to curtail initiative and efficiency. Firstly, there was lottizzazione: governments ensured that key civil service posts were occupied by party members; here, we call it cadre deployment, and as in Italy, it occurs right through the ranks (it is instructive that COSATU membership has shifted significantly from private to state employees).
Then there was the sorry condition of the Italian state-owned enterprises. Inefficiency meant heavy reliance on public funds, which were all too readily obtained, yet most SOEs experienced heavy losses over the 1960s, with the marginal exception of hydrocarbon giant ENI. 
The confluence between lottizzazione and SOEs resulted in the emergence of what then Bank of Italy governor Guido Carli termed a “state bourgeoisie,” with Italy specialist Paul Ginsborg writing that “a new generation of public managers and entrepreneurs, very closely linked with the dominant political parties, not only wielded considerable power, but also diverted substantial amounts of public funds into private channels.” 
Ginsborg cites the chilling case of ENI’s Eugenio Cefis, who used ENI funds to secretly purchase for himself a controlling shareholding in electrical-chemical SOE Montedison, to which he then relocated, to preside over an empire with 15% of the European market, and which by the 1970s included “the ownership of major newspapers, … the financing of political parties, and close links with the secret service.” I hardly need to draw comparisons here, but the term state capture comes to mind.
Lastly, there was the pervasiveness of clientalism in Italy where the Mafia were particularly successful in exploiting the cities’ developmental agencies to divert funds intended to develop SMMEs into construction speculation, which eroded public space, the public interest – and public confidence. 
Over 1967-1968, Italian universities overcrowded with newly-urbanised working class and aspirant middle class students erupted with protest, as occurred here over 2015-2016. In both cases, the immediate concerns around fees, exclusion, and a lack of transformation – stemming from the antiquity of the Italian academy, and the corporatisation of the South African – were rapidly overtaken in the eras of the Cultural Revolution and the Arab Spring with broader concerns. 
In both countries, the students rejected conventional politics, including those of the ossified Communist parties, in favour of more militant and directly-democratic politics, though flawed in practice, and radical new currents arose: in Italy, the operaista of the varsities, housing projects and factories; here, the populists of the #fall campaigns, townships and platinum mines. Both countries were wracked by unprecedented strike-waves over wages and conditions and community protests over service delivery, with the socialists and communists losing control of the unions to new formations (witness the fragmentation of COSATU, and NUMSA’s new initiatives). In Italy, even the DC-linked CISL unions radicalised, and in 1972 federated with the leftist CGIL and conservative UIL (take heed of SACOTU’s aim to unite with COSATU if it sheds the ANC). Radicals repeatedly clashed with a remilitarised police force: the Carabinieri had undergone the process in 1962, and the SAPS in 2010. 
From 1969-1982, a crisis-riven Italy fell into what is called the Anni di Piombo, the “Years of Lead,” in which bullets ruled in a zero-sum “strategy of tension” between reactionaries and revolutionaries, resulting in waves of ultra-left and ultra-right terrorism and even two coup plots. The 2012 Marikana Massacre was a worrying sign that this course is already a possibility for South Africa, while this year’s integration of the EFF into municipal governance at ANC expense (as with the United Proletarians in Italy at Socialist expense) somewhat defuses the threat. So now we stand on the cusp of where we might diverge from our “Italian Season” – or continue with unforseeable results.

[ENDS]

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Distilling the Vision


The acknowledgements page in any book concentrates the writer's mind in recalling that writing is not at all the lonely task it is made out to be, but that scores of people contribute to the distillation of vision. Here is the text from that page in Drinking with Ghosts (2014):

I want to thank my publishers at BestRed, Jeremy Wightman
and Fiona Wakelin, for getting excited about the original
idea, my editor Karen Press for her many and sterling
improvements, and former Military Intelligence officer Lt-Col
Danie Crowther for his fact-checking. A book of this scope,
which simultaneously covers my country’s transition and my
own personal evolution, naturally owes much to those who
have assisted my research, so heartfelt thanks is due to my
beloved archivists, unsung heroes of the preservation of our
national memory, especially Michelle Leon of the Times Media
Group, and Zeenath Ismail of Independent Newspapers
– as well as Kashiefa Ajam of Saturday Star and Noor-Jehan
Yoro-Badat of The Star. I’m especially indebted to journaliststurned-
writers Rian Malan, Julian Rademeyer and Tony
Wende for their invaluable critiques of my text.
I would not have become the rather maverick journalist
I did if not for my mentors, so I recognise the contributions of
my first news editor, the late Joe Mulraney of The Natal Mercury,
who taught me that the foundation of my craft lay in paying
attention to detail; my third news editor, Shami Harichunder,
who showed me the bridge still to be crossed; and my quiet
friend Philani Mgwaba who had lost almost his whole family
to internecine fighting in Zululand, yet helped me cross
that bridge, sitting with a quart of Black Label between my
knees, listening to the Umlazi Gospel Choir in black tie raise
the roof of a shed in rural Ixopo – its loveliness famed in Cry
the Beloved Country; my fourth news editor, the late George
Mahabeer, who was the quintessential street-smart, socially
connected journalist; and I am especially indebted to Jocelyn
Maker, who founded the Sunday Times Investigations Unit,
and who panel-beat me into the investigative journalist I am
today. I have attempted here to credit my colleagues for their
contributions to my work, but there are those who make the
headlines sing, yet whose bylines do not appear in the records;
to my scores of wonderful, unsung subs, this is for you!
There are others who, in blazing trails through the bleak
wildernesses of massacre and memory, set the benchmark
for my efforts, and whom I have had the privilege to meet:
Antjie Krog who walked the Truth Commission’s trail of
tears for all of us, interlocuting the enormity of our crimes
in her Country of My Skull; Ariel Dorfman of Chile, who so
accurately inscribed to me his book on exile, longing, loss
and belonging, Feeding on Dreams: ‘this book, that could be
about South Africa’; indefatigable, gentlemanly anarchist
revolutionary Octavio Alberola Suriñach, whose campaign
to try to break Spain’s ‘Pact of Forgetting’ the horrors of the
Franco era dovetails with my project of recovering memory
in Southern Africa; and Rasha Salti of Lebanon, whose own
penetrating forensic meditations on her country’s transition
in Beirut Bereft resonated so immediately with my own
musings on our haunted condition as I wrote this book. I
have not met writer and consummate forensic journalist Gitta
Sereny, but her unflinching and yet nuanced interrogation of
the aftermath of the Nazi era, The German Trauma, was the
inspiration for this book.
Lastly there are those thousands of ‘ordinary’ people
I have interviewed in my career, especially those I have
quoted here in the text, many of whom I’m sure you
will agree are quite extraordinary. We journalists have no
authority to force interviewees to speak to us; we rely merely
on our reputations for fair dealing, so a profound thank you
is owed to all, villains and virtuous ones alike, who trusted
me enough to tell me a little of their personal truths; I trust I
have been fair to you. There are many others who may remain
unnamed, but to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for the way
I came to see the world: the fierce, such as anti-apartheid
fighter Rica Hodgeson, secretary to Walter Sisulu, who in
her eighties once told me that those whites who didn’t want
to live alongside blacks in Hillbrow as she did ‘can just
fuck off!’; the passionate, such as bag lady Doreen Gunn,
whose infectious, all-consuming love for the lost drove me
to walk the streets of the East Rand for five months on an
investigation; and the lost themselves, such as the sad whore
on whose thin pink crocheted bedspread in her tiny Albert
Park apartment with the rickety dressing table we used to lie
fully clothed and speak of dreams – until she lit her Mandrax
pipe and it was time for me to go; and my debonair friend
and former photographer Anton Hammerl, killed by Gaddafi
loyalist troops outside Brega during the Libyan Civil War on
5 April 2011, who used to sing me songs by psychobilly band
The Cramps on our many long journeys behind the curtain.
Of course, I need to issue the amateur historian’s caveat:
while I have striven to be as fair and accurate as possible,
any errors of fact or interpretation are my own. I do,
however, recognise the difference between what the French
term verité (truth) and veracité (veracity): both the journalist
and the historian have as their task the search for veracity
rather than truth, for there are many truths, yet it is out of
verifiable, established facts that the strands of different,
sometimes competing, sometimes complementary, and often
illuminating truths emerge. I trust that readers will take
away with them new nuances to their personal truths about
my country’s past, and thus, its future.

[ENDS}

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

In a Garden in Seville

This is an extract from my forthcoming book, Isandlwana - a Love Story. 


Three green parrots that look more like African Rift Valley fish, swim past, cheeping, through the entwined palms and cypresses, the cries of owls, cicadas and parakeets resonate, ringing around the memorial to Gustavo Bécquer, the Sevillian poet, where three marble women on a bench, clung together in their carven crimplenes, describe the passion, expressed in his words, of the traverse of the mystery: “The invisible atoms of the air / pulsate all around and become inflamed… / What is happening? Tell me! / Silence! It is love that is passing!” 

The first woman sits low, as in a reverie, her fan is snapped shut, hair in a bun, her cheeks rounded with puppy-fat, a single rose fallen into the crease of her gown; she is anticipation. The second woman is more refined, her cheek thrown back in immodest ecstasy, her ringlets falling to her half-bared shoulders, her right hand laid over her heart; she is consummation. The third woman leans against her and looks away, a veiled mantilla crowning her ageing face, her hands clutched in sentiment; she is melancholia. Flanking Bécquer in bronze, a lively child-like Cupid, his quiver full, prepares to dart the young woman – but on the other side, an adult Eros lies dying, his bow dropped, his wings crumpled, his arm raised in fruitless supplication, a dagger buried in his back… And yet it is here that a bold cypress, of formidable girth, chosen by the poet’s friends for its longevity, surpasses its intention, slowly pushing the marble blocks aside, dismantling the monument to ephemeral passion.

Nearby, water gouts from the throats of three pipes, falling from a 1960s ceramic sunburst sky into a rectangular pool that is underfilled, a backdrop to a reclining stone statue of another woman, whose stone head has been removed by thieves. In a pool two young girls, very blonde, swim in their shorts to beat the heat; emerging, water runs down their thighs; they tremble at the cloud of my passing.

[ENDS]

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Mughal Lovers

I sometimes write songs, and this one is from a proposed EP being put together by some wonderfully talented friends of mine. The collection of songs for the EP has a very chilled vibe, somewhat post-punk, and my topics are offbeat. This song, Mughal Lovers, is based on a beautiful Mughal Indian miniature, the original of which hangs in the Museum Rietberg in Zurich. It was painted in Himachal Pradesh in about 1780-1790 in watercolour and gold on paper. In the song, I compare the painting's martial alarm with the pastoral peace of a Hindu watercolour from the same time and place, of Radha and Krishna in a forest glade, painted about 1775. Though the music has yet to be decided on, in my mind's ear, it is a stoner-doom track ;)


Mughal Lovers
© Michael Schmidt 2016

Mughal
lovers 
on the verandah
They turn
at the
sound of thunder
Lightning
rips the 
fabric of the air

His musicians play on
murali, tambura
and pakhavaj
while six white birds 
like hooked crosses
flee the threatening sky
a lone white bird
flies instead to the west 

Clutching 
his hand 
yet she is unafraid
Bring me
my sword!
Orange-robed 
woman complies
Green hills 
succumb to darkness

In a
forest
Krishna and Radha
frolic on 
a bed of leaves
His Sahasrāra 
spouts golden filaments
his blue right hand
deep in her yoni

Mughal
lovers 
trapped in wonder
They turn
at the
sound of thunder
Lightning
rips the 
fabric of the air
He must go off to war
but Krishna and Radha
are rolling on the floor

Mughal 
lovers
Mughal
lovers
Mughal
lovers
huh!

[ENDS]

At the Confluence of Desire & Power

I am busy reading a book review of Simon Springer's The Anarchist Roots of Geography (University of Minnesota Press, USA, 2016). Of course, both Pyotr Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus were groundbreaking geographers as well as leading anarchist theorists - but their contributions to geography are often forgotten, and this Springer hopes to rectify. 
The reviewers, James D Sidaway and Richard J White, write about Kropotkin and Reclus: "Arguably their commitment to writing geography was a means to promote popular appreciation of the diversity of culture, nature, and society without hinging this directly to imperial and racial theory." Because of course, cartography as a modern discipline was grounded in racist imperialism - with the anarchists providing a much-needed libertarian alternative.
One of the criticisms of my book Cartographie de l'anarchisme révolutionnaire (Lux Éditeur, Quebec, 2011) that really touched me was that it was pretty poor on the actual cartography, the reader having desired graphic maps of the movement, not mere verbal descriptions. I partially rectified that in the English-language edition, but I hope to do far better service to the study of class geography with my forthcoming works, in particular the multimedia project On the Waterfront: Anarchist Counter-power in Port City Littorals which maps dockside community politics in Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Santos, Barcelona, San Francisco, Tampico and Berdyansk.
Looking at the 2008 world map made of waste paper by artist Vik Muniz below reminded me of the stunning 2006 birch-wood sculpture by Maya Lin of the depths of the Caspian Sea, its surface bent by the curvature of the earth. All this thinking on how infinitely flexible map-making can be reminded me of a piece I wrote that was published in the pan-African journal Ogojiii last year (below).



Map-making has always been and still remains as much an exercise of fantasy as it is of fact, and Africa’s vast expanses have drawn cartographers as the Bermuda Triangle draws doomed ships
The earliest maps were crudely linear in that they merely charted important trade routes, and were not concerned with the perilous hinterland or with establishing a holistic, interconnected view. The earliest surviving map rendering the entire continent in very rough outline is the Kangnido Map, a schematic 1402 Korean chart of the known world that shows Africa as a distended balloon like the udders of an Nguni cow. 
Humourist Terry Pratchett noted that “cartographers get embarrassed about big empty spaces”, so early maps of Africa tended be crammed with fanciful tribesmen and mythic kingdoms: Sebastian Münster’s squarish 1554 chart features the one-eyed giant Caliban, and the fabled realm of Prester John.
Once the circumnavigation was mapped, it was initially only as an interlinked series of coastal features intended as a linear guide for trading ships. It was still some centuries before the outline familiar to us was represented in the 1584 map of Dutchman Abraham Ortelius.
But Ortelius’ image was incorrect as he used a cylindrical map projection developed by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. Nicholas Crane in his book on Mercator exclaimed that “maps codify the miracle of existence,” but while Mercator is of use to navigators, it distorts landmasses as one moves towards the poles, so Greenland is shown as larger than Africa, which is in fact 14 times its size, while the Cahill-Keyes Projection published by Gene Keyes in 1975 boasts minimal distortion.
“Before maps,” wrote Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, “the world was limitless. It was maps that gave it shape and made it seem like territory, like something that could be possessed…” From the 1737 map by German mathematician Johann Matthias Hase which delineates imaginary territories such as “Ethiopia Inferior”, a huge arc from Mauritania to Uganda, to contemporary artist Wolfwoman7’s Africa Map made of various animal hides, maps have attempted to transform the illusion of possession into something tangible.
A bid at realism that was also hopelessly wrong was John Cary’s 1805 chart, which shows only the polities then known to Europeans, but also a “Soudan” that runs across the entire Sahel, bounded on its south by a continuous chain of fictitious mountains, with the sub-Saharan interior tersely labelled “Unknown Parts”. 
It was that tantalising unknown that drew David Livingston, Richard Burton, Johan Hanning Speke, and Henry Morton Stanley to venture forth, resulting in the 1880 map by Eugène Andriveau-Goujon – recognisably modern and near-complete in terms of its geographic features, an accuracy that would be exploited five years later as the Scramble for Africa began. 
So cartography is ultimately about the confluence of desire and power – and here are four cartographic attempts at balancing those imperatives in very different ways: 

Speculation: the 1402 Yi-Kwon Map 

Despite its many obvious errors, including the absorption of almost the entire interior into a giant version of Lake Victoria, the “Kangnido” map by Yi Hoe and Kwon Kun at least showed that the Koreans knew – via Islamic traders – that the Nile originated in a great lake and emptied into the Mediterranean, though Africa’s outline is hugely speculative. But the map is striking because it was produced a full 95 years before Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape in 1497. The almost identical Chinese Da Ming Hun Yi Tu Map is claimed to date from 1389 though this is disputed. In his bestselling but academically contested book 1421, Gavin Menzies theorised that the Kangnido Map originated in a Chinese rounding of the Cape in 1421, and he adjusted the map (at right above) for longitude, restoring West Africa’s prominent bulge. 

Subversion: the “1844” Cyon Map 

Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon drew an alternative map of Africa – which he renamed Alkebu-Lan, or Land of the Blacks in Arabic – as it would have looked in the year 1844 as an experiment in an alternative world timeline in which the Black Death almost wiped out the population of Europe, leading to a Muslim rather than Christian colonisation of super-equatorial Africa, and the development of independent indigenous states to the south. Drawing in part on the ethnography of Africa, his map – inverted to stress its anti-Eurocentric perspective – shows the north littered with sultanates including Al-Magrib (Morocco and its hinterland) which embraces Al-Andalus (Iberia), and the south with states named after the dominant kingdoms or tribes in the area such as Buganda or Wene wa Kongo.

Humour: the 2012 Tsvetkov Map 

Bulgarian graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov became a best-selling author with his Atlas of Prejudice, which first went viral in 2009 and has since been published in English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Italian – and banned in China. His map of Africa shows the continent from a prejudiced US perspective, the only recognisable countries being South Africa and Kenya which are labelled ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Obama’s Birthplace’ (in Tsvetkov’s map of Donald Trump’s view, the entire north is marked ‘Terrorists’ while the south is ‘Obama’s Birthplace’), the rest being designated in huge chunks by some degree of disaster – with the exception of the Arab Spring states which are marked ‘Yay, Democracy!’ 

Politics: the 2015 Roberts-Swift Map

Journalist Pierre Englebert commissioned cartographers Warren Roberts and Robyn Swift to produce this map to illustrate his article in Foreign Affairs titled “The ‘Real’ Map of Africa: Redrawing Colonial Borders”. Africa’s colonial boundaries have proven remarkably resilient: with the exception of South Sudan and Eritrea, the map has barely been redrawn since the 1950s (Somaliland’s new border with Puntland is in fact a retreat to the colonial-era map). Englebert wanted to represent the regions of Africa where the states failed to exercise effective control over their hinterlands, and for this ‘realist map’, his map-makers consolidated in grey the regions that the French government strongly warned its citizens against visiting. He states: “By my count, of the 11.7 million total square miles of African continental land mass, roughly four million, or about 34%, are out of state control.”  As an anarchist negotiating to return to work in that stateless third again, it's a fascinating concept.

[ENDS]

Monday, 16 October 2017

Combating Fascism

Members of the Malatesta Battalion of Italian anti-fascist volunteers who fought Franco's forces in the Spanish Revolution defending Basque Country and who, as far as I know, perished - down to the last woman.

In 1936, the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution saw perhaps 40,000 international volunteers flock to Spain. There was no internet, cellphone or email communication and travel to the Revolutionary free zone was exceptionally hazardous, and yet they flooded in. Some 250 (later rising to 400) foreigners such as the Algerian anarchist Saïl Mohamed, German IWW veteran Heinrich Bortz and Canadian IWW veteran Louis Rosenberg were organised into an International Group of the Durruti Column, under Louis Berthomieu, which had as its training base the former Pedralbes Barracks, which was renamed the Miguel Bakunin Barracks, and comprised the Sacco and Vanzetti Century (English-speaking), the Erich Mühsam Century (German-speaking), the Sébastien Faure Century (French- and Italian-speaking), and the Matteotti Battalion (Italian-speaking). 

Meanwhile, several hundred Italians exiled in France – many of them former anti-fascist Arditi del Popolo militiawomen and militiamen (there was actually an office of the exiled USI in Barcelona at the CNT headquarters) – formed the Malatesta Battalion, nick-named the Battalion of Death, which initially started on the Huesca front under Camillo Berneri, but which went on to defend Basque Country, while other Italians were attached to the Justice and Liberty Century of the Ascaso Column, and after May 1937, Italians formed the 25th Ortiz Division within the Land and Liberty Column. About 40% of the XV International Brigade (incorrectly but popularly known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade after one of its subsidiary battalions), though it had been organised by the Comintern, consisted of Wobblies and unaffiliated socialists from the USA. There were only four Wobblies and one anarchist volunteer in the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the XV International Brigade. 

The Spanish Revolution brought into sharp relief the question of revolutionary war: whether it was to be fought along conventional hierarchical military lines, or along unconventional horizontal militia lines. Crucially, this was not merely a question of strategy and tactics – though military historian Antony Beevor hailed the militia over the conventional military in Spain – but at its heart also of ideology, the motivating rationale for armed action, and the ethic which mobilises the masses. In the years since the Spanish Revolution’s defeat from within and because of its capitulation to militarisation and statism, and especially during the post-WWII era of national liberation struggles in Asia and Africa and leftist insurgencies in Latin America, the libertarian military option was largely forgotten, and the guerrillas of the 1950s-1980s largely learned their strategy, tactics and ideology from statists, whether Sun Tzu, Guevara, Mao, Giap or others – though the libertarian tendency, although occluded, was never entirely absent from anti-imperialist struggles in much of Latin America, and to a lesser extent, North Africa, North America, and Europe.

Fast-forward to the post-Soviet era, and the question of revolutionary war has come to the fore again, starting with the Zapatista insurgency in Chiapas in 1994, moving through the Arab Spring of the 2010s, and into the libertarian communist revolutionary experiment in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) today. Eight decades after the Spanish Revolution, we are witnessing the Rojava Revolution and the world's working people are connected as never before - and yet there seems to be a paucity of support for the revolutionary forces fighting the retro-fascist Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist organisation. It made sense that local anarchist organisations first took up the fight: Revolutionary Anarchist Action (DAF) and Social Rebellion (SI) in Turkey and Western Kurdistan. The insurrectionist SI fights alongside the International Freedom Battalion (EÖT), a formation of foreign leftist volunteers inspired by the International Brigades who fought fascism in the Spanish Revolution, but other anarchist formations have joined the struggle: the French-speaking Henri Krausucki Brigade (BHK), the Greek-speaking Revolutionary Union for Internationalist Solidarity (ESDA), and the English-speaking International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF). 

Still, the response from the international anarchist movement to not only fighting fascism, but to defending the first significant social revolution since perhaps the true Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 (not to be confused with the Khomeinist counter-revolution which succeeded it) is disappointing. Certainly, interviews with the anarchists fighting Daesh reveal that the fighters themselves are disdainful of the "armchair anarchists" who criticise those who have taken up arms. Resorting to armed struggle is not a decision to be taken lightly, but just as the struggle against apartheid - in which mass pacifist initiatives such as the Defiance Campaign of the 1950s were popularly successful while remaining largely toothless - a time comes when one has to resort to arms. 

But today’s guerrillas, especially those who wish to establish a free society and not merely yet another repressive-exploitative state-capitalist formation, it is a vastly altered battlespace, with hunter-killer drones, cyberwar, intimate satellite imaging, non-lethal weaponry, biometric tracking, over-the-horizon strike capability, 3D-printed weapons, dirty bombs, and so forth. For post-Soviet libertarian communist revolutionaries, therefore, the question of revolutionary war in this new battlespace, or revolutionary neowar as I term it, is urgently framed by new technologies, new post-Soviet ideologies including Salafist terrorism and a revived libertarian communism – and a whirlwind of competing centrifugal hegemonic-imperialist and centripetal decentralist-proletarian forces.

And yet, this essentially asymmetrical war between the poles of what the autonomists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt call “empire” and “multitude” or what the anarchist Felipe Corrêa calls simply “domination” and “self-management” has been trapped in resistance forms either shaped by a liberal incapacity to grasp the nettle of power (as in the Occupy movement that “occupies” nothing but pre-existing public space), by a naïve, self-incapacitating mass pacifism (as in the Egyptian Spring’s reliance on the theories of the likes of Gene Sharp), and by outmoded tried-and-failed forms of statist guerrilla warfare (in particular the foquismo of Ché Guevara, the militarism of Carlos Marighella, and the proto-state terrorism of the likes of the Red Army Fraction).

A clear question therefore needs to be asked of anarchists, libertarian communists, libertarian autonomists, and all free-associative, decentralist groups, networks and formations: how do we fight back today? How do we ensure that popular mass forces seize power – the ability to transform exploitative relations – and break it down into local directly-democratic, socially pluralistic administrative bodies, horizontally-federated in order to establish a durable libertarian counter-power? I will examine these issues in detail in two forthcoming books and one multimedia project. First the book Deepest Black: Defending the Anarchist Mass-Line (due to be published next year) will examine four historical case studies of mass anarchist movements that defended themselves by force of arms in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Manchuria and Uruguay. Next, the multimedia project The People Armed: Anarchist Fighters Verbatim (a work in progress) will feature in-depth unedited video interviews with anarchist combatants from across the world to be showcased online with text translations and stills portraits. And last, the book Navigating Battlespace: Revolutionary Anarchist Praxis (in planning) which will update Abraham Guillén’s Strategy of the Urban Guerrilla to produce a contemporary anarchist military praxis.


International Freedom Battalion militants pose with their anti-fascist flag in front of a Daesh banner after their liberation of Tel Abiyad from Daesh.

[ENDS]