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(en) Anarkismo.net: Exchange on "Black Flame" with "Anarchist Studies" between Spencer Sunshine and Lucien van der Walt
Fri, 03 Sep 2010 10:51:22 +0300
Anarchist Studies , which describes itself as "an inter-disciplinary journal of scholarly
research into the history, culture and theory of anarchism", recently carried a critical
review of Black Flame by Spencer Sunshine. The authors were permitted to write a reply,
which addressed some of the issues raised by Sunshine. ---- In summary , Sunshine's review
praised Black Flame for "the best assemblage of research I have encountered on classical
anarchism’s complex relationship to questions of nationalism, imperialism and race", and
its "stress on the rich anarchist and syndicalist traditions in Asia, Africa, Eastern
Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean," "a ‘crucial corrective to Eurocentric
accounts’". However, he also claimed the book was "infuriating", since it had a "highly
unusual" definition of anarchism (i.e. anarchism as a form of libertarian socialism),
leading to the exclusion of the (so-called) "philosophical, individualist, spiritual and
‘lifestyle’ traditions" (supposedly the "majority" of today's anarchists).
In response, Lucien van der Walt noted that Sunshine provided no serious evidence to
refute the book's core theses e.g. that the global anarchist movement emerged in the First
International, that syndicalism is an integral part ... that this tradition centres on
rationalism, socialism and anti-authoritarianism ... the writings of Mikhail Bakunin and
Pyotr Kropotkin ... and that this ‘narrow’ definition is both empirically defensible and
analytically useful". In presenting the book's view of anarchism as a "highly unusual", he
ended up having to present the views of pretty much all major anarchists and syndicalist
activists and movements as "highly unusual" forms of anarchism, and to do this through the
use of loaded rhetoric.
Below, we include first the review, followed by the refutation:
REVIEW by Anarchist Studies 18.1, pp. 113-115
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 ‘fails 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 self-identified
anarchists. This includes the entirety of the philosophical, 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 the claim that anarchism can be defined solely
by the moment when Bakunin, during his stint in the International, authored some
(arguably) narrowly workerist tracts. Black Flame claims syndicalism emerges directly from
this period of Bakunin; correspondingly, they dub him an ‘unreserved’ syndicalist (p.134).
They attempt to enrol many other anarchists as syndicalists, for example arguing that
Errico Malatesta can be seen as ‘an outright syndicalist’ (p.202). Kropotkin, they claim,
wrote Mutual Aid ‘to prove the possibility of a free socialist society, which was to be
created by a class revolution’ (p.302). Meanwhile, inconveniently proto-fascist
syndicalists like Sorel and Labriola are excommunicated from this ‘broad’ tradition by
similar rhetorical manoeuvres.
The authors are owed a great credit for their comprehensive assemblage of research on
nationalism and imperialism, and for making the long overdue call to re-situate the
classical tradition in its social and historical context. But their grand claims regarding
what constitutes the misnamed ‘broad anarchist tradition’ strike me not only as
unconvincing, but as unhistorical. Indeed, I actually found many of the positions Black
Flame argues against – such as the notion that anarchism can be understood as a ‘point of
intersection of several ideologies’ (p.40), and that anarchism and syndicalism are
‘different, albeit overlapping, tendencies’ (p.149) – to be far more convincing than the
book’s own claims.
PhD candidate, CUNY Graduate Center in New York City
RESPONSE by Lucien van der Walt
Black Flame and the broad anarchist tradition: a reply to Spencer Sunshine
Anarchist Studies 18.1, pp. 115-117
As Michael Schmidt and I noted in the opening chapter of Black Flame: the revolutionary
class politics of anarchism and syndicalism , our book achieves its main aim when it
provokes debate about the ideas, history and relevance of the broad anarchist tradition.
As we wrote, ‘good scholarship proceeds through debate, rather than the creation of new
orthodoxies’. We welcome challenges and corrections based on research. It is in this
spirit that we read Spencer Sunshine’s review.
Yet debate is only fruitful when due care is taken to substantiate claims, and to argue
points. And, regrettably, our reviewer has been rather careless in developing his
criticisms, relying on the use of polemical language, assertions rather than refutations,
and trivial anecdote.
Sunshine suggests that the ‘particularities of the argument’ in Black Flame detract from
‘the possibilities of serious discussion regarding many of the book’s stances’. The
‘particularities of the argument’ are, however, precisely what require ‘serious
discussion’. And ‘serious discussion’ is what his review lacks.
Rather than provide a substantive and substantiated criticism of Black Flame's core
theses, the reviewer relies instead on loaded language to delegitimise those theses.
Thus,Michael and I (he claims) operate essentially through a series of 'retroactive
baptisms and excommunications' and the construction of a 'cosmology' via 'rhetorical
manoeuvres'. Sunshine thus deploys religious metaphors in an attempt to negate the weight
of evidence and logical argument that the book (the first in a set of two) develops over
nearly 400 pages via an unmatched and genuinely global survey of 150 years of anarchist
history on five continents. The vast synthesis involved, the textual evidence, the broad
sweep of history, the innumerable cases cited - these are trivialised by a labelling
strategy strong on style and imagery, but rather short on content.
No evidence is adduced to dispute our core theses: that the global anarchist movement
emerged in the First International, that syndicalism is an integral part of the broad
anarchist tradition, that this tradition centres on rationalism, socialism and
anti-authoritarianism, that the writings of Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin are
representative of its core ideas, and that this 'narrow' definition is both empirically
defensible and analytically useful.
Sunshine, having presented the authors as pronouncing ex cathedra , tends, in short, to
base his major critique on assertions of faith, rather than demonstrations of fact.
He then claims, in all seriousness, that Black Flame has a 'highly unusual' understanding
of the anarchist tradition. Black Flame has sinned in having 'excommunicated' what is
('quite possibly') the 'majority' of 'today's self-identified anarchists', the so-called
'philosophical, individualist, spiritual and "lifestyle" traditions'.
This time some evidence is provided - but it is mere anecdote. Personal impressions of a
small segment of (an implicitly all-American) scene are offered as a refutation of a
scholarly survey of 150 years of global history. Sunshine is himself understandably a bit
unsure about the validity of generalising from such data: thus, the caveat 'quite possibly'.
We now find ourselves in an analytical cul-de-sac where the views of Bakunin, Kropotkin,
Errico Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, Liu Sifu, Ricardo Flores Magón, Nicolás
Gutarra, T.W. Thibedi, Nestor Makhno, Juana Belém Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Kôtuku Shûsui,
Shin Ch'aeho, Ba Jin, James Connolly, Chu Cha-Pei and many, many others, and the politics
of organisations like the Spanish CNT/CGT, the Australian IWW, the Bolivian FOL, the
Mexican CGT, the Uruguayan FAU/OPR-33, the South African ISL/IWA, the Hunan Workers'
Association, the Eastern Anarchist League, the Black Flag Alliance, Ghadr , the Bulgarian
FAKB, Egypt's International Union of Workers and Employees, the Russian SKT and many, many
others are treated as exemplifying 'highly unusual' aspects of the anarchist tradition. A
mere byway in a tradition supposedly embodied by certain 'philosophical, individualist,
spiritual and "lifestyle" traditions' - in America, today. Having argued along these
lines, Sunshine concludes with the odd claim that it is, in fact, Black Flame's analysis
that 'strikes' the reader as 'unconvincing' and 'unhistorical'.
Again, however, the problem is an analysis centred on style (in this case, reducing
anarchism to 'self-identity'), rather than on substance (movement politics and praxis).
Sunshine's review is correct in noting that Black Flame argues for a bounded, historical,
precise definition of anarchism, and that the work aims at developing a 'crucial
corrective to Eurocentric accounts'. His curt dismissal of the book, however, rests upon
precisely the rather shaky analyses of anarchism and syndicalism that the book contests.
There is little room for generative debate in this sort of intervention, and it would be a
pity if readers of Anarchist Studies were to dismiss Black Flame as a result of this review.
Lucien van der Walt
Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand, RSA
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