Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism/Black Flame and the Broad Anarchist Tradition: A Reply to Spencer Sunshine

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Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism Edinburgh & Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2009

Black Flame is an intriguing and infuriating work which deserves to be read and debated. Rich in both theory and history, the authors say their conclusions are 'quite striking' and result in a 'rethinking' of the anarchist canon (p. 17). Furthermore, they very fairly say that 'if this book succeeds in promoting new research into anarchism, even if that research contradicts our arguments, we consider our work well done' (pp.26-7). However, the particularities of the argument, and the tone in which they are presented, distract from the possibilities of serious discussion regarding many of the book's stances.

Of particular interest is the last chapter, which is the best assemblage of research I have encountered on classical anarchism's complex relationship to questions of nationalism, imperialism and race. Black Flame's stress on the rich anarchist and syndicalist traditions in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean serves as a 'crucial corrective to Eurocentric accounts' (p.21). Also of much interest is the careful explanation of the differences between different syndicalist unions.

Black Flame is also important in that it situates anarchism in its social and historical context. The authors argue that the notion of anarchism as a timeless part of human existence originates in Paul Eltzbacher's 1900 book Anarchism. It is only afterwards that anarchists themselves (especially Kropotkin) incorporate this idea into their own beliefs. Black Flame notes that 'if anarchism is a universal feature of society, then it becomes difficult indeed to explain why it arises, or to place it in historical context, to delineate its boundaries, and analyze its class character and role at a particular time.' Therefore the traditional perspective 'fads to historicize the broad anarchist tradition, or explain why it arose as well as why it appealed to particular classes' (p. 18).

The authors stress the necessity of a bounded definition of anarchism for scholarship: 'A good definition is one that highlights the distinguishing features of a given category, does so in a coherent fashion, and is able to differentiate that category from others, thereby organizing knowledge as well as enabling effective analysis and research' (p.43).

Unfortunately, their definition is achieved through a series of retroactive baptisms and excommunications. What they call the 'broad anarchist tradition' is actually exceedingly narrow in relation to self-identified anarchists. They start with 'class struggle anarchism' (which includes anarcho-communists, Platformists, the Friends of Durruti and Galleanist insurrectionists), and to this they add syndicalism - as such. Almost the entire membership of every global syndicalist union receives a mass anarchist baptism, along with Daniel DeLeon and James Connolly. In one rhetorical move, the 'broad anarchist tradition' gains millions of adherents.

But excommunicated are (what are quite possibly) the majority of today's selfidentified anarchists. This includes the entirety of the phdosophical, individualist, spiritual and 'lifestyle' traditions. The authors say 'we do not regard these currents as part of the broad anarchist tradition ... "Class struggle" anarchism, sometimes called revolutionary or communist anarchism, is not a type of anarchism; in our view, it is the only anarchism' (p. 19). They disagree with Murray Bookchin for even using the derogatory term 'lifestyle anarchism', since 'it is incorrect to label these sects anarchist at all; they have no place in the anarchist tradition, for they are not anarchist' (p.170). (Yet, according to their cosmology, Bookchin is also not an anarchist!)

Their highly unusual definition is based on die claim that anarchism can be defined solely by the moment when Bakunin, during his stint in the International, authored some (arguably) narrowly workerist tracts. …