Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism was a controversial book when it came out and is even more controversial now, though for very different reasons. It presented a revised theoretical framework for anarchism which:
- Painted it as a global, rather than Euro-American tradition
- Pointed out that syndicalism can be considered an offshoot of 1860s anarchism rather than a separate idea-set
- Argued that class-struggle communist anarchism was in fact the only legitimate form of anarchism.
This vision was lauded by many anarchists of a more class struggle orientation, criticised by those of a more intersectional and less “workerist” mind, and loathed by anarchist individualists. Though today the disputes the book sparks have taken on another far more sinister dimension.
Any future readings of this book, seminal and lauded when it came out, are inevitably going to be coloured by a giant elephant in the room: one of its co-authors, Michael Schmidt, was (arguably) exposed as a racist and Afrikaner nationalist, if not an outright fascist, who for some reason saw these beliefs as compatible with a particular brand of class struggle anarcho-syndicalism.
While his writing partner, Lucien van der Walt, remained publicly silent for several months, he used his web moniker RedandBlackWritings to defend Schmidt and argue that the evidence against him wasn’t credible. He later issued a public statement through the Anarkismo network in which he depicted himself as torn between the man he thought he knew and the double life he appeared to have lead, not sure which was the real one.
Given that at least one piece of evidence – an internal memo written under his own name which he’s confessed to writing – contains pretty overtly racist material which he hasn’t even disowned, it’s clear that if he isn’t a total fascist, he’s at least a man with extremely questionable racial politics and therefore a hindrance to the global social anarchist movement. His attempts to defend himself – posting pictures of himself with black people and pointing out that his ex-wife is Indian – have been nothing short of pathetic.
But then what of the book itself? Should it be written off completely because of the double life of one of its authors? Not necessarily.
Many respected anarchists did or advocated doing horrid things aside from their core body of work. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a vicious misogynist and racist (especially towards Jewish people), Mikhail Bakunin likewise harboured many contemptible prejudices towards Jews, Peter Kropotkin supported World War One, and so on. While these flaws are always brought up (and should be) they do not invalidate what they got right or render their contributions to anarchist thought and practice void.
The same should arguably apply to contemporary anarchist and socialist writers, though their infractions should be taken a great deal more seriously given the more socially enlightened time we live in, and thus the greater standard we should hold people to.
So how does Black Flame stand up on its own as a work of social anarchist theory?
Well, looking back, it’s actually a very flawed book.
I first read it myself a year or two after it came out and was extremely impressed with it. At the time, I was only starting to really look in depth at the large body of anarchist history and thought, and Black Flame served as a great solidification of anarchist ideas which contextualised them in light of their origins. Though even on that first reading, I regarded its picture of communist class-struggle anarchism as the “only” anarchism to be too narrow. Since then I’ve come to my own understanding of anarchism which is narrower than the “big tent” view which accepts just about any ideology that slaps “anarcho-“ onto itself as anarchist, but still wider than the ultra-strict categorisation found in Black Flame.
Having since studied a lot more of the vast literature of anarchism, reading the book again reveals a lot of downsides I didn’t notice before. For a start, their picture of communist class- struggle anarchism as the only legitimate form of anarchism isn’t even original. Stuart Christie (who introduces the book) and Albert Metzler posited the same idea in their book The Floodgates of Anarchy during the 1970s.
While its encapsulation of class struggle thinking in the late 19th and early 20th century is vast, it hardly even touches upon the multitude of fascinating anarchist theorising which developed after the Second World War, aside from a few mentions of Murray Bookchin.
And when I say “vast”, that’s both a complement and a condemnation. Because further reading revealed their scholarship (so impressive first time round) to be very wide, but not very deep. In many cases they only display a superficial understanding of the thinkers they describe, such as Emma Goldman.
With regard to people whose ideas they dismiss, their portrayals are even more shallow. This becomes especially evident with Max Stirner, whom I’m convinced the authors didn’t even bother reading, as they make errors about his thought that appear to have been picked up from second-hand misunderstandings than any serious consideration of his philosophy. They claim there was no real difference between self-described anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists in the early 20th century, but closer reading of the material reveals this to be false – with a strong disagreement over tactics (popular uprising in communes vs trade union action in workplaces) dividing them on ideological and practical grounds. Anarchist historian Robert Graham briefly takes them to task for this conflation in his recent book on the emergence of anarchism.
Also, the inclusion of Marxists like Daniel DeLeon, William Haywood, and especially James Connolly as part of “the broad anarchist tradition” is just comical. I’m Irish. I grew up learning about James Connolly since primary school and read a great bit by him in his own words since becoming a socialist. The idea that he was any kind of anarchist strikes me as one of the most ridiculous things in the whole tome. A syndicalist, yes, but come on.
The fact that the book consciously avoids painting a Eurocentric portrait of anarchism is often praised, but while the authors make mention of many anarchists and movements from the global south, they don’t really explore what they thought very much, or try to incorporate their insights into their revised anarchist framework. I wouldn’t quite call what they do tokenism, but in certain passages it can feel like it.
With regard to oppressed nationalities, they do at least portray the classical anarchists accurately in explaining how they advocated working within anti-colonial national liberation movements – trying to push them in a libertarian direction from within – rather than the simplistic rage against all forms of nationalism as one and the same you often find in anarcho-syndicalist circles today. But this is marred by an equally simplistic and class-reductionist perspective on victims of national domination by imperial powers, disagreeing with Rudolf Rocker that the popular classes from imperialist countries enjoy a slightly higher position in quality-of-life relative to colonial subjects. They seem to believe that as long as you’re working class, you aren’t in any real position of advantage to anybody else who’s working class.
Finally, there’s the chapter on race and gender. That Black Flame lumps these two distinct topics together is a problem all on its own, but let’s ignore that for now. The authors at least acknowledge gender oppression is its own unique form of hierarchy which cannot simply be reduced to exploitation by capital, but do not do the same for racial oppression. They paint one of the most puerile caricatures of white supremacy and anti-racist politics I’ve ever seen (I’ve literally seen critiques on Reddit with more nuance) before dismissing it in favour of abstract “working class” solidarity. Once again, if you’re working class, you apparently enjoy no real advantages to anyone else who’s working class. They cherry pick a few statistics showing that the most racist States in the US are also the ones with the lowest welfare for workers, expecting us to believe that this proves whites are not in fact in a structurally advantageous position relative to people of colour.
Do I even need to explain how simple-minded this is? It is conceiving of racial oppression in entirely economic terms, not even caring to consider the political, social, and psychological hierarchies which define racist societies; which inculcate in the minds of people of colour from an early age that white is the default and anyone else is a deviation from the default. And what about the grotesque treatment by the state of African-Americans? Are we supposed to believe this is just an epiphenomenon of working class exploitation by capital?
I really do want to not make this all about the authors personally, but I can’t shake the feeling that a good bit of this perspective could be informed by these two white working-class South Africans trying to convince themselves that they don’t really benefit from a system based on racial hierarchies, that it’s only their class position that disadvantages them; and that if purely economic differences were stripped away, there would be zero differences in life-chances between them and an unemployed black man from a Johannesburg township.
Despite anarchism being one of the first political traditions to support the inclusion of LGBT+ people, and to support free love and the uninhibited freedom to sexual pleasure, the issue of sexuality is never brought up. Nor are the crucial issues of ecology (despite Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus having explored them thoroughly), animal liberation, or liberatory technology. This last omission, especially for those of a solarpunk sensibility, makes the book even more dated as we look to enter an era defined by (A) an overflow of technological change, (B) an accelerating ecological crises, and the need, in turn, for social anarchists to know how to respond to both.
All in all, revisiting the work reveals it to be an attempt to create a version of anarchism that’s far too close to orthodox Marxism: class-reductionist, economistic, stuck in the golden era of proletarian socialism, and dismissive of attempts to expand revolutionary theory by incorporating struggles against other forms of hierarchy/domination into its conception of class struggle. And all of the above remains the case even if you discount the obvious personal flaws in character of Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt.
If you’re an anarchist of a more workerist orientation – who sees the added focus on the fights around race, gender, sexuality, ability, and ecology to be worthy of dismissal – then reading it will likely reinforce your convictions without making your arguments for them any stronger.
Looking back, I now find it unsettling that I recommended it to so many people – even if just to debunk the idea that anarchism had no coherent set of ideas – and have to concede that those who attacked it were on firmer ground than I remembered.
So if you’re a young social anarchist who’s looking to find out more about anarchist history and theory, you can safely skip this one and lose little of value.
Instead, try checking out the following for a broader and more nuanced understanding of social anarchism as an idea-set aimed at a beginner:
– Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism by Peter Marshall
– Anarchism and its Aspirations by Cindy Milstein
– We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It by Robert Graham
– Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture by Jesse Cohn
– Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward
– Red Emma Speaks by Emma Goldman
– Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism by Rudolf Rocker
– The Anarchist FAQ (long but very comprehensive)