Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination

By Biccum, April R. | Capital & Class, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination


Biccum, April R., Capital & Class


Benedict Anderson Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination Verso, 2007, 233 pp. ISBN: 978-1844670901 (pbk) £10

reviewed by April R. Biccum

Benedict Anderson's follow up to Imagined Communities takes us back, in historical detail, to the fin de siècle anti-colonial mobilisation in the Philippines. The focus of Anderson's study are the connections made between two nationalist insurrections in Cuba and the Philippines through a dense interpersonal network of novelists, activists and scholars with near-global reach, and it thus weaves a complicated web of personalities, documents, events and narrative. In Under Three Flags, Anderson offers us a work of history and a close reading of key figures, their seminal texts, and detailed accounts of their production and circulation. Anderson's study is anchored around three Filipino men who were instrumental to Filipino nationalism, and who were engaged in this dense, transcontinental exchange of letters, pamphlets, articles, academic studies and novels. Anderson's detailed account of the lives and works of novelist Jose Rizal, anthropologist and journalist Isabelo de los Reyes and coordinating organiser Mariano Ponce comprises a complex combination of literary criticism, sociological and political study and historiography that includes Anderson's own translations of texts and detailed erudition of archival material.

Anderson returns us to the theme of print media explored in Imagined Communities, and his study demonstrates the importance of the novel form to burgeoning nationalisms - a fact also explored through postcolonial theory. Anderson sets out to supply us with a 'political astronomy', attempting to 'map the gravitational force of anarchism' between opposing poles of nationalism as they emerged at empire's end. Anarchism, for Anderson, overcomes many of the shortcomings of Marxism, which were apparent at the time of Anderson's focus and have continued to echo through debates between neo-Marxism, anti-imperialism, single-issue movements and identity politics. Anderson is drawing our attention to the textuality of these encounters across time, space, language and culture in an era he refers to as late-nineteenth-century 'early globalisation'. His point is that this is the first time in history that such a transglobal coordination of political events has become possible thanks to the technology and circulation of print media and the mobility of cosmopolitan, elite, and multilingual personalities, all connected in some way or another to the hub of European anarchist activism. The very slight argumentative frame of Anderson's account is that it is through this transglobal 'imagined community' that activists on different continents learned how to 'do' revolution, and that the most reliable allies of Filipino and Cuban anti-colonial agitators were this hub of European anarchists. I say 'slight argumentative frame', because while Anderson emphasises it in the introduction, any evaluation or analysis of the importance of this claim falls away completely in his dense reading of events, texts and personalities. But in fact, this is an important claim for a few reasons.

First, because of the kinds of schisms that have occurred in the last twenty years in the academic left with the rise of poststructuralist epistemological frameworks across the social sciences. Post-structuralism has had a particular impact on postcolonial theory, which has quite broadly examined the historical, sociological, geographical and literary configurations of anti-colonial, nationalist and postcolonial state formation. These histories have highlighted the incommensurabilities of anti-colonial mobilisation and the framework of classical Marxism, which has produced a scepticism toward postcolonial studies on the part of contemporary Marxist scholars, exacerbated by the post-structuralist inflection of much postcolonial scholarship. This has led to infield schisms and to formerly-Marxist-rurnedpostcolonial theorists such as Robert Young writing the history of postcoloniality in a way that inscribes an organic affinity between the complex tradition of Marxism and the anticolonial imagination (Young, 2001).

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