[PDF] van der Walt, 1997, Film review, Ken Loach’s “Land and Freedom” (“Anarchists-syndicalists sidelined”)

Lucien van der Walt, 1997, Film review: Land and Freedom, directed by Ken Loach, entitled “Anarchists-syndicalists sidelined,” from Debate: voices from the South African left, number 2 (first series), pp. 123-124.  Note: review was deeply influenced by the review in Scottish Anarchist, no. 3, 1997.

tyl5 cartelGet the PDF of the review here

“Land and Freedom,” the new film  [1995] by Ken Loach, provides a moving account of events in the Spanish Civil War. Loosely based on George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,” it is the story of a young British working class communist militant who goes to Spain to fight fascism. Once there, he finds comradeship and romance in the militia of the POUM [Workers' Party of Marxist Unification -- an independent Marxist group later repressed by the Communist Party] and discovers the revolution within the struggle against fascism.

The film is especially notable for its portrayal of the social revolution which swept Spain after the attempted fascist coup by General Franco in 1936. For example, when the POUM militia liberates a village in the film, the villagers organise a meeting to discuss what to do next. After a heated discussion, they decide to collectivise the land and work it in common, a process repeated countless times in those areas controlled by anti-fascist forces.

On the other hand,” Land and Freedom” does not clarify for its audience the distinction between nationalisation and collcctivisation. At the beginning of the film, a Spaniard showing films from the revolution explains that industry had been “nationalised” when in fact it had been collectivised through workers’ self-management.

Additionally, by choosing to focus on the activities of the POUM militia, Loach provides a misleading picture of the events and actors in the revolutionary struggle in Spain.  In particular, the film gives no sense of the central role played by the anarchist-syndicalist worker, women and youth organisations in making the revolution, despite the fact that they comprised the vast bulk of the revolutionary Left. Although anarchist-syndicalist colours appear throughout the film in red and black flags and neckties, and whilst the POUM militia sings the anthem of the giant anarchist-syndicalist union ["A Las Barricadas"], the CNT (National Confederation of Labour), no attempt is made to put across the Anarchists’ point of view. For example, the events sparked by the Communist Party’s attempts to commandeer the CNT-controlled telephone exchange in Barcelona [in 1937] are confusingly shown and leave the audience none the wiser.

However, notwithstanding these faults, “Land and Freedom” remains worth seeing. Fittingly, the film ends with a quote from libertarian socialist William Morris, reminiscent of the words of Nestor Makhno:

We will not conquer in order to repeat the errors of past years, the error of putting our fate into the hands of new masters; we will conquer in order to take our destinies into our own hands, to conduct our lives in accordance with our own will and our own conception of the truth.

Go see “Land  and Freedom,” a vivid celebration of the Spanish Revolution and the ideas that inspired it.

Article [+PDF]: Chinguwo, Byrne, McGregor, van der Walt, “Why May Day matters to Malawi… History with anarchist roots”

Paliani Chinguwo, Sian Byrne, Warren McGregor and Lucien van der Walt, 1 May 2013, “Why May Day Matters to Malawi … history with anarchist roots”, The Nation, Labour Day Supplement, (Malawi), pp. 11-12.

pdflogosmallThe PDF is here

Malawi strikesWhy May Day matters to Malawi …History with anarchist roots

Paliani Chinguwo, Sian Byrne, Warren McGregor and Lucien van der Walt, 1 May 2013, “Why May Day Matters to Malawi … history with anarchist roots”, The Nation, “Labour Day Supplement,” (Malawi), pp. 11-12.


When we celebrate May Day, we rarely reflect on why it is a public holiday in Malawi or elsewhere. We want to share the powerful struggles that lie behind its existence and the organisations that created it and kept its meaning alive. May Day, international workers day, started as a global general strike commemorating five anarchist labour organisers executed in 1887 in the US. Mounting the scaffold, August Spies declared:

“If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labour movement – the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery – the wage slaves – expect salvation – if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”

Anarchist* roots

May Day’s roots in the revolutionary workers’ movement are often forgotten. It arose from the anarchist movement – anarchism is often misunderstood. Anarchists such as Spies wanted society to be run by the ordinary workers and farmers, not capitalists or State officials. In place of the masses being ruled and exploited from above, society and workplaces should be run through people’s councils and assemblies, based on participatory democracy and self-management.

Anarchism was a global mass movement from the 1870s, including in the USA. Its stress on struggle from below for a radically democratic socialist society appealed to the oppressed in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and the Americas.

The 1880s USA looked like China today: massive factories, poverty, slums, and the oppressed working class under the boots of the powerful, wealthy elite. Anarchist workers fought back. They were central to the US-wide general strike of May 1 1886, involving 300 000 workers. Unions demanded the eight-hour working day and justice for the masses.

Storm centre

Chicago was the storm centre: the third largest US city where the elite flaunted its wealth in the face of poor American and immigrant workers. Chicago saw the largest 1 May demonstrations, against the backdrop of terrible working conditions and poverty, worsened by economic depression.

The power of the Chicago movement rested not just on numbers, but also on revolutionary ideas. It was the anarchist International Working People’s Association (IWPA) that led the massive march of 80 000 people through Chicago, growing during the following days to 100 000.

IWPA leadership included black women like ex-slave Lucy Parsons, immigrant workers like Spies and Americans like Oscar Neebe and Albert Parsons.

Its Pittsburgh Proclamation called for ‘the destruction of class rule through energetic, relentless, revolutionary and international action’ and ‘equal rights for all without distinction of sex or race.’

Internationalist in outlook, the IWPA and the Chicago-based anarchist Central Labour Union (CLU) it led, fought for all working and poor people, regardless of race or nationality. It published 14 newspapers, organised armed self-defence and mass movements, and created a rich tapestry of revolutionary counter-culture like music.

Anarchists rejected elections in favour of mass organising and education. Elections, the IWPA said, achieved nothing much: the State was part of the system of elite rule; politicians were corrupted into the ruling elite. Instead, most IWPA activists stressed unions as the basis for genuine workers’ and farmers’ democracy: unions should undertake factory occupations, leading to an anarchist (free) society.

Haymarket martyrs

On May 3, Chicago strikers fought with scabs; police killed two strikers; the IWPA called a mass protest against police brutality at Haymarket Square. Here, an unknown person threw a bomb at police, who then shot dead many workers.

The Chicago elite used the clash to crackdown on anarchists. After a blatantly biased trial, eight anarchists were convicted of murder, falsely blamed against all evidence for the bombing.

Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were hanged in 1887. Louis Lingg committed suicide instead. Samuel Fielden, Neebe and Michael Schwab got life sentences.

Rebuilding, anarchists and other socialists formed the Labour and Socialist International in 1889. This proclaimed May Day as Workers Day, a global general strike to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs, fight for eight-hours, and build global workers unity.

So May Day began as an example of globalisation-from-below. And it continues to be a rallying point for workers everywhere, facing social and economic injustices 120 years on.

Struggles in Malawi

Malawians played an important role in unions in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Famously, Clements Kadalie spear-headed the anarchist-influenced 100 000-strong Industrial and Commercial Workers Union.

In Malawi itself, unions can be dated to 1945, when the truck drivers and anti-colonial activists, Lawrence Makata and Lali Lubani, set up a Transport and General Workers Union, the Magalimoto. This was in the context of Blantyre City strikes by teachers, sanitation workers, domestic servants and rail workers.

While the British State rolled out labour reforms in its colonies from the 1940s, the aim was to contain unionism. Repression remained common, especially against politicised unions. Unions heaved a sigh of relief at Malawi’s self-government (1963) and independence (1964). They had suffered heavily, especially during the 1959 State of Emergency.

But while unions enjoyed cordial relations with the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) during the independence struggle, relations turned sour in 1964 as President Hastings Banda cracked down. When unions seemed to support ‘dissident’ Cabinet ministers, 14 out of 19 were de-registered. In 1965, Banda’s MCP placed unions under direct party control, a step to creating the one-party State, with Banda as President-for-Life.

Rejuvenated unionism

The 1980s IMF/World Bank-sponsored Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed by Malawi’s elite, plus 1990s pro-democracy struggles across Africa, rejuvenated unionism.

On April 6 1992, veteran unionist, Chakufwa Chihana, shook the country by openly challenging the one-party State at Chileka Airport, upon return from South Africa. His arrest sparked a strike wave, starting on May 5. In 1993, the civil service experienced two mass strikes in health, education and transport for better wages and conditions.

The strikes met severe repression, echoing the US Haymarket events. In 1992 and 1993, dozens of workers were injured or detained by State security forces; others were killed. Finally, the MCP regime was forced from below to start respecting freedom of association and to loosen its grip on unions.

Malawi’s May Days

Under the one-party State, May Day was not a public holiday nor could unions organise independent May Days.

So, the first May Day in independent Malawi was in 1994. Held at the Ryalls Hotel in Blantyre just two weeks before the first multiparty general elections, and 11 months after a referendum in favour of elections, it was organised by the Hotels and Food Workers Union. Held, however, at a luxury hotel, without publicity and in the wake of State repression of dissidents and strikers, the event was poorly attended.

May Day became an official public holiday in 1995 under the newly-elected United Democratic Front (UDF) government – which included Chihana as Second Vice-President.

That year, the Trade Union Congress of Malawi (TUCM) held a widely publicised series of May Day activities at Kamuzu Stadium and a peaceful march. The then minister of Labour, Ziliro Chibambo, was present, as were employer representatives. When the minister saluted workers’ contributions to the independence and democracy struggles, promising to defend workers, the mammoth crowd jubilantly ululated.

That same minister was, however, lambasted by the UDF government, after investors complained bitterly of his speech. By the 1996 May Day commemorations, a new minister of Labour was in office. And only from 2004 did the State President start attending May Day events.

Today, tomorrow

While parliamentary democracy in Malawi and the reintroduction of free unionism, mark major advances for the working class, many problems remain.

SAP-style neo-liberal policies remain; many work for low wages or on small plots, and have in reality very little say over major issues; restrictions on free speech remain; police often use excessive force. In the Sadc region and Malawi in particular, an 8-hour day is still not a reality.

Conclusion: May Day today

The Haymarket Tragedy remains a symbol of countless struggles against capitalism, the State and oppression. Freedoms won in recent times rest on the sacrifices of martyrs like the IWPA anarchists, and the Malawian workers of 1959, 1992 and 1993.

May Day is a symbol of the unshakeable power of working class solidarity, and of remembrance for martyrs. It can serve as a rallying point for new anti-capitalist, participatory-democratic left resistance.

We need to defend and extend the legacy of the Haymarket affair, and to build the working class as a power-from-below for social change.

* For an in-depth analysis of anarchism’s roots and global history: Schmidt, M. & van der Walt, L. (2009). Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. AK Press: San Francisco, contact: Lucien.vanderWalt@gmail.com


*Sian Byrne works for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), South Africa. Warren McGregor is a lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa; Lucien van der Walt lecturer at Rhodes University, South Africa; Paliani Chinguwo is a researcher at Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council, Botswana.


Paliani Chinguwo, Sian Byrne, Warren McGregor and Lucien van der Walt, 1 May 2013, “Why May Day Matters to Malawi … history with anarchist roots”, The Nation, Labour Day Supplement, (Malawi), pp. 11-12.

Read more of this post

JOURNAL [+ PDF]: Philip Bonner, Jonathan Hyslop &Lucien van der Walt, 2007, “Rethinking Worlds of Labour: southern African labour history in international context”

Philip Bonner, Jonathan Hyslop and Lucien van der Walt, 2007, “Rethinking Worlds of Labour: southern African labour history in international context”, African Studies, volume 66, number 2/3, special issue ‘Transnational and Comparative Perspectives on Southern African Labour History’, pp. 137-180.

Introduction to a special issue of African Studies, arising from a labour history conference in Johannesburg that brought together scholars from Brazil, Botswana, Britain, India, South Africa and elsewhere. Argues for rethinking labour history in a more global framework, by developing comparisons and examining cross-border connections. This suggests relocating South African labour movements in larger processes, both in southern Africa, and internationally; the notion of a discretely “South African” working class history is untenable and misleading, and obscures, for example, the transnational circulation of radical ideas like anarcho-syndicalism and Marxism-Leninism.

pdflogosmallThe PDF is available here

Speech [+PDF]: Lucien van der Walt, 2013, “Speech to Metalworkers: anarcho-syndicalism for South African unions?”

Speech to metalworkers: Anarcho-syndicalism for South African unions today?

Lucien van der Walt

Lightly edited transcript from Lucien van der Walt’s discussion at 1st National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) Political School, September 2013. From his debate with Solly Mapaila, 2nd deputy GS of the South African Communist Party (SACP) on anarcho-syndicalist versus Leninist views of the revolutionary potential of unions.

pdflogosmallA version was printed in ASR #61 2014, pp. 11-20. The PDF is available here

Captures van der Walt’s main points: the debate on the anarcho-syndicalist view that revolutionary trade unions, allied to other movements, creating a self-managed worker-controlled socialism through mass education, counter-power and workplace occupations; anarcho-syndicalism as a working class tradition; the anarcho-syndicalist view that unions can potentially be more revolutionary than political parties including Communist Parties, & be revolutionary without leadership by parties; the view that electioneering can be replaced with direct action campaigns; that the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939) shows unions taking power and making a bottom-up worker-controlled revolution; and how NUMSA’s current actions refute Marxist-Leninist theory; other problems with that theory’s traditional approach to unions; and the implications of all of this for current debates over the form of a new socialist movement in South Africa and elsewhere; and the nature of the South African ruling class and the primary social contradictions. Read more of this post

Article [+ PDF] Sian Byrne, Warren McGregor &Lucien van der Walt, 2011, “Why May Day Matters: History with anarchist roots”

Sian Byrne, Warren McGregor &Lucien van der Walt, 2011, “Why May Day Matters: History with anarchist roots,” South African Labour Bulletin,  Volume 35, Number 1, pp. 51-53

pdflogosmallPDF is online here

Why May Day matters

History with anarchist roots

When we celebrate May Day we seldom know or reflect on why it is a holiday in South Africa and in many parts of the world. Sian Byrne, Warren McGregor and Lucien van der Walt tell the story of powerful struggles that lie behind its existence and of the organisations that both created it and kept its meaning alive.Faced with neo-liberal globalisation, the broad working class movement is being forced to globalise-from-below. Working class internationalism is nothing new; we need to learn from the past.

May Day or international workers day started as a global general strike to commemorate five anarchist labour organisers executed in the United States in 1887. Mounting the scaffold, August Spies declared: ‘if you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement – the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery –the wage slaves – expect salvation – if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.’

Anarchists stressed the self-emancipation of the masses by building revolutionary counterpower. This meant mass organisations against the state as the basis for a new participatory democratic society. Syndicalism was one approach which entailed building revolutionary trade unions. Read more of this post


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