Lucien van der Walt, 2013, “(Re)Constructing a Global Anarchist and Syndicalist Canon – a response to Robert Graham and Nathan Jun on ‘Black Flame‘,”  ‘Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies,’ special issue on ‘Blasting the Canon,’ No 1  (2013), pp. 193-203

pdflogosmallOnline PDF mirrored here from here

This article defends the argument that anarchism / syndicalism emerged in the 1860s, as a libertarian form of socialism, opposed to social and economic hierarchy/inequality, favouring international class struggle and revolution, from below, for a self-managed, socialist, stateless  order; it defends the necessity using a truly global history and analysis, placing the colonial and postcolonial world, and a wide range of mass movements, centre-stage, in order to grasp the “canon” of texts/thinkers/theories that must be ‘regarded as authoritative for anarchist thought and practice  or especially significant  in the  historical development of anarchism.’ It rejects claims that anarchism is a timeless “orientation” existing outside of contexts and classes, and demonstrates the methodological and analytical problems that arise from such approaches, including tautology, assertion and selective use of evidence.

Lucien van der Walt, 2013, “(Re)Constructing a Global Anarchist and Syndicalist Canon – a response to Robert Graham and Nathan Jun on ‘Black Flame‘,”  ‘Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies,’ special issue on ‘Blasting the Canon,’ No 1  (2013), pp. 193-203

Lucien van der Walt*

Robert Graham’s and Nathan Jun’s thought-provoking interventions in this special issue on ‘Blasting the Canon,’ regarding Michael  Schmidt  and my _Black  Flame:  The  Revolutionary  Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism_ (2009), is welcomed. It is a pleasure to engage two thoughtful writers, and their considerations on the anarchist canon—i.e., the texts/thinkers/theories that (as Jun argues) should be ‘regarded as authoritative for anarchist thought and practice  or especially significant  in the  historical development of anarchism.’


_Black Flame_ made a wide range of arguments–about, for example, the social basis of anarchist peasant uprisings, the movement’s anti-colonial/anti-imperialist struggles, approaches to gender and unionism, struggle for the city etc. It has, of course, also spurred debates on anarchist (and syndicalist) theory, history and canon—such debate was one of its stated intentions (van der Walt and Schmidt 2009: 26-27).

The argument that is at issue with Graham and Jun is a fairly small part of _Black Flame_—the claim that anarchism (and its offshoot, syndicalism) is a distinctly modern phenomenon, born in the international socialist/ working class movement—specifically, the First International (1864-1877).

Here, in debates with Marxists and others, anarchism emerged as a distinct current, centred on the Alliance of Socialist Democracy: core members included Bakunin, Kropotkin and Malatesta. Anarchism was a libertarian form of socialism, opposed to social and economic hierarchy/inequality, favouring international class struggle and revolution, from below, for a self-managed, socialist, stateless  order; syndicalism  is  one  anarchist  strategy (van der Walt and Schmidt 2009: 71, 170).

Graham objects,  claiming  that  _Black Flame’s_ approach is  ‘narrow’   and  ‘extraordinary’   (by  excluding   certain  trends), ‘circular’ in approach, contradictory (for supposedly insisting that anarchism be ‘internally coherent,’ while tolerating an incoherent ‘socialism’ encompassing  Marxism and anarchism), and closed to‘significant  departures  or  modifications’  or  ‘refinement’  (thus, ‘dogma’).

Jun claims  it is circular,  with a ‘No True Scotsman’  fallacy (setting arbitrary, shifting standards for inclusion into ‘anarchism’).   He   rejects   its   (supposed)   claim   that  anarchism   is ‘whatever  the  mainstream’  of  ‘historical  anarchism’  accepted (since this might leave out other ‘anarchist’ views). He claims this is like asking a medieval European Catholic for a general survey of Christianity.

Both favour a vague (they say, ‘broad’) definition: for Graham, this means the ‘possibility of anarchist doctrines arising independently in different eras and circumstances,’ with anarchism having ‘different schools, currents and tendencies.’ Jun is  more   sweeping:  ‘anarchism’   is  not  a  ‘doctrine,’   but  an ‘orientation’  ‘throughout  human history,’  while  not  admitting this entails ‘mass excommunications.’

I suggest, however,  that these are serious misrepresentations of the _Black Flame_methodology,  claims  and coverage—Schmidt and I provide a historically-based argument that _tracks_ the rise of anarchism (and syndicalism), _summarises_ its key claims, _traces_ its evolution and spread, _analyses_ its key debates and moments—this is a fairly  standard social  science approach,  not an exercise  in arbitrary boundary setting.  And,  rather than being ‘narrow,’  it uses a truly global history and analysis, placing the colonial and postcolonial world, and a wide range of mass movements, centre- stage.

Secondly, I demonstrate that Graham’s  and Jun’s  alternative approaches  are  far from  satisfactory:  both claims  for  multiple ‘anarchisms’  are simply  assertions,  resting  on _a priori_  positions that lack a clear methodological rationale or empirical basis, and that are constructed in ways rendering any falsification impossible. Neither provides reasoned grounds, nor evidence, for the supposed superiority of their alternative definitions.

Both authors, in short, manifestly fail to apply to their own approaches the same standards of rigour they demand from _Black Flame_. I submit that a historical, as opposed  to a speculative approach, is more justified, and more fruitful.


Graham and Jun dispute dating anarchism to the 1860s.

It is a matter of record, however, that the anarchist movement appeared   as  something  _new_ to  its  contemporaries,  rivals,  and adherents; with this appearance, anarchism _first_ became the topic of scholarly  enquiry, police  investigation,  and media  attention (Fleming 1979: 17–19). Even writers favouring exceedingly loose definitions of ‘anarchism’ concede that ‘anarchism’ did not previously exist as a ‘political force’ (see, for example, Joll 1964: 58, 82, 84; Woodcock  1975: 136, 155, 170)—as, so indeed, does Jun, with his allusion to ‘historical anarchism’ (is there a different kind?).

The very question of whether there were earlier or ‘different schools,  currents and tendencies’  of anarchism  (Graham), or an anarchist  ‘orientation’  ‘throughout  human history’  (Jun) could not even be _posed_ before this moment.

It is, then, anachronistic to represent this new, specifically, consciously ‘anarchist’ movement (and its syndicalist branch) as but one in a number of anarchist ‘schools’ ‘throughout history.’

It   was,   and  is,   one   of  several   more-or-less  _libertarian_ ‘currents,’ including socialist variants like _autonomia_ (van der Walt  and  Schmidt  2009: 71–71).  But  to  conflate  these  very different approaches with anarchism is unnecessary.

It  also  requires   gutting  the  ‘anarchist’   movement  of  its specificities,  while  forcing  the  others  into a single  ‘anarchist’ category. And to make the effort to include Stirner, Zerzan, etc. into ‘anarchism’ has little real justification (besides a sort of dogmatic convention), yet is analytically costly.

By  contrast,  _Black Flame_ consciously  undertakes  defining ‘anarchism’ (and thus, considering its ideology, history and canon) through a broad, global,  representative  overview  of the history of this new worldwide historical and social phenomenon through examining a wide range of cases.

Building on the Age of Revolutions, located in the ‘capitalist world’ and the working class and socialism ‘it created’ (van der Walt and Schmidt 2009: 96), anarchism was ‘simultaneously and transnationally’ constituted by a radical network in North Africa, Latin America, and Europe (van der Walt and Hirsch 2010: liv). It then expanded globally, its first mass formations including Cuba, Mexico, Spain, and the United States.

By focusing on this  movement,  and taking  a global view, _Black Flame_abstracts the core, shared features of its ideology, it’s often misunderstood relationship with syndicalism, unpacks its major  debates,  divisions  and developments,  and its  core  social features—for example, the class character of its urban mass base.

This historical and sociological approach forms the basis for the conclusion Graham so hotly  rejects: there ‘is only one anarchist tradition, and it is rooted in the work of Bakunin and the Alliance’ (van der Walt and Schmidt 2009: 71).

To describe this methodology as ‘completely circular’ (Graham),  or  as  entailing  a  ‘No  True  Scotsman’  fallacy, or ‘excommunications’  (Jun), is a complete  caricature,  a failure  to take seriously the core analysis Schmidt and I developed.

_Contra_ Graham, moreover, _Black Flame_does not require that anarchism  be  reduced to  ‘self-described  anarchists’:  it only requires _ideological and organisational lineage_. The IWW thus fits in  the broad anarchist tradition;  Stirner  does not.  It  does  not _require_ that anarchism be ‘internally coherent’ (Graham), but merely claims that it _was_; this was a description.

There   is   no   contradiction   between   a  focused,   precise definition,  and a rich,  nuanced, and broad account; the bulk of Black Flame provides a detailed history of the anarchist/syn- dicalist tradition, past and present.


Graham’s charge  that _Black Flame_ has  a ‘narrow’  approach is unconvincing.

_Black Flame_is perhaps the only truly global, non-Eurocentric,survey of the theory and history of anarchism (and syndicalism), covering 150 years, and the only thorough survey of the tradition’s internal debates, again with a global—not a ‘narrow’— view.

Indeed,  it  is  _precisely_  this  scope  that  makes  _Black Flame_ peculiarly  central  to  any  serious  debate  on  the  meaning  of ‘anarchism’ and its canon.

This is radically different to the narrowly North Atlantic framing that dominates the standard English-language surveys— due credit must be given to Joll, Woodcock, and Marshall for their pioneering  works,  but it cannot be denied  they almost entirely ignored the world outside of (only parts of) Western Europe and   North America. [1]

Compounding this profound imbalance, such works discuss at length obscure Western figures like Stirner, whose historical importance is trivial, and links to anarchism doubtful. This problem  continues  today,  with  marginal  Americans  like Rothbard,  Zerzan,  etc., constituting  common fare in ‘standard’ surveys—whilst major figures like Liu, Flores Magón, J.C. Mechoso, Shin, Szabó,   Thibedi, etc. are (at best) passing asides.

But with a worldwide view, trivialities in the West fade away

in the light  shed  by truly  important  moments elsewhere.  It is, then, rather peculiar to present _Black Flame_as ‘narrow,’ because it has a global sense of perspective.

Yet Graham continues:  _Black Flame_has a problematic  focus on ‘the more narrow’ world of ‘class struggle anarchism.’

What exactly is ‘narrow’ about this world? It is, by any measure, far larger and more influential than any other contender for the ‘anarchist’ label; a focus on it is _necessary_, not ‘narrow.’

This is the anarchism of towering figures, from insurrectionists (who Jun incorrectly assumes are excluded from _Black Flame_)  like  Galleani,  to  mass  anarchists and syndicalists  like Bakunin, Chu, Durruti, Goldman, Gutarra, Kim Jwa-Jim, Kropotkin, Makhno, Malatesta, Ōsugi, Rocker, and every historically important anarchist/syndicalist formation, from the Argentinean FORA and _Voz de la Mujer_, to Spain’s CNT and Mujeres Libres, to the global IWW,  South  Africa’s ISL/IWA,  the Hunan Workers’ Association, FAU/OPR-33, the Korean _Ůiyŏltan_, etc.

What ‘school’ of significance is lost by this focus? This is the force that activated revolutions in Spain, Ukraine, and Manchuria, and demonstrated anarchism was a means to change the world.


Does _Black Flame’s_ focus somehow turn ‘anarchism from a living tradition into a historical relic or dogma’ (Graham)? No, since  ‘class struggle anarchism’ (his term) has a rich, powerful history, and is _also_ a ‘living tradition’.

This is the tradition represented today by such key examples as the Spanish  CGT and CNT, the Chilean  FEL, Brazilian  FARJ and Uruguayan FAU,  the  IWA/AIT,  Egyptian  LSM  and other Africans,, the Greek rebels, and innumerable local groups and projects worldwide.  Notions  popularised  by certain academic texts—that worker-peasant  anarchism has been superseded or overwhelmed by a post-1945 ‘new anarchism’ (e.g., Woodcock,   1975)—are  highly  misleading,  even for  the  West today.

Graham worries   that  a  strict   definition   will  mean  that ‘significant  departures  or  modifications’  will   entail  exclusion from  ‘anarchist  status.’  But _every_ definition implies  exclusion. Example: Russian ‘anarchist’ Bill Shatov’s ‘modifications’ included, as Petrograd Bolshevik police chief in  1918,  crushing anarchists  (Bryant 1923).  Must  he perpetually retain ‘anarchist status’?

Graham notes that some figures in the anarchist tradition (like Landauer) drew on other ideas (like Tolstoy). _Black Flame’s_ point, however, is  that what a tradition _shares_ constitutes  its  defining features, the parameters for ‘refinement.’ (And Landauer, Tolstoy aside, was an anarchist, who died for the Munich councils revolution.)


Of course, there are probably libertarian elements in all cultures, religions and historical periods (and most modern political ideologies).

But are  these  all _anarchist_?  Graham and Jun insist they are, and claim this approach has support from ‘notable members’ of ‘historical anarchism’ like Kropotkin and Rocker.

This latter claim is indeed true—but does not resolve the matter.

Is this not precisely the methodological error that Jun claims of  _Black Flame_ : asking a medieval Catholic for a survey of Christianity? Further, if anarchism arises ‘independently in different  eras  and circumstances,’  or ‘throughout history,’  why should Kropotkin have decisive  weight?  But if Kropotkin does, then why  should  his  movement’s  politics  not define  the parameters of anarchism?

Yet Graham and Jun _must_ invoke Kropotkin and Rocker, since it  would be obviously  anachronistic  (and futile) to consult  the works  of  those  outside  Kropotkin’s  tradition  (e.g.,  Lao, Win stanley, Godwin, and Stirner) for opinions on the general history of ‘anarchism.’

Graham and Jun are also engaging here in a rather selective reading, skipping over Kropotkin’s and Rocker’s writings that make claims _identical_ to  _Black Flame_ : anarchism as new, revolutionary,  socialism  (e.g.,  Kropotkin  1927: 46, 289–290; Rocker [1938]1989: 23–24, 34–35). It was, indeed, Kropotkin—and not    _Black Flame_ ,   as   Jun   suggests—who   termed   Stirnerism ‘misanthropic bourgeois individualism,’  opposed to anarchism’s ‘communist sociability’ (van der Walt and Schmidt 2009: 47–48).

What Graham and Jun also miss is that Kropotkin and Rocker were increasingly involved in manufacturing, for the controversial, embattled, anarchist movement, a legitimating propaganda _mythology_.   This   centred on  precisely   the  claim that ‘anarchism’ existed ‘throughout history’ that Jun favours.

This myth-making was only possible once anarchism had _emerged_ in the 1860s—it started around 40 years later. It is a claim to antiquity by a new movement, no more evidently  true than equivalent   nationalist   myths.  Both  anarchist   and  nationalist myths have an obvious political function, but they are analytically misleading and often demonstrably false: Kropotkin’s work in  this genre  was  marked  by contradictory claims  and rather dubious readings of past trends.[2]

While many are (rightly) sceptical of nationalist mythologies, anarchist  mythology continues  to have a firm  grip.  Yet  rather than interrogate  such claims, many activists and scholars compound the problem  by grouping widely different libertarian (and not so libertarian) strands into ‘anarchism,’  sometimes  by selecting an (arbitrary) group of writers (e.g., Eltzbacher’s ‘seven sages’  approach: [1900]  1960), sometimes  by creating  vast compendiums of anything vaguely libertarian (Marshall [2008] starts with prehistory).

But  this  sort  of  exercise  requires  anachronistic,  selective readings  of  the  past, and such exceedingly  vague  (and often shifting) definitions of ‘anarchism’ as to render the term meaningless.  For example,  bringing Stirner  into the same category as Bakunin requires eliding great differences, effectively reducing  anarchism  to  ‘negating the  state’  (Eltzbacher  [1900] 1960: 189, 191, 201).

Two major problems then arise.

First, the boundaries such an exercise requires are necessarily shaky. For example, if anarchists  are  those who merely  ‘negate the state,’ they must include Marxist-Leninists seeking the state’s ‘withering  away’ (e.g.,  Mao [1949]  1969:  411),  and neo-liberals opposed  to  statism  (e.g., Thatcher,  1996). Since neither  trend appears in most surveys of anarchism (except Marshall 2008: xiii, 517–518, 560), their exclusion is arbitrary and/or a _de facto_ admission of the stated definition’s fallacy.

Either way, the loose definition is unjustifiable, lacking clear criteria for inclusion and exclusion.


Secondly, the arbitrary nature of the loose approach to studying ‘anarchism’ is exposed. An approach that seeks to assimilate as much as possible to ‘anarchism’—presenting ‘anarchism’ not as a concrete  historical   phenomenon,   but  as   multiple   ‘doctrines arising independently’ (Graham) or an ‘orientation’ ‘throughout history’ (Jun)—_must_ start from a preset _definition_ of anarchism in such terms by the writer. This definition is not tested, but assumed true; it is freed from the possibility of falsification.

Or, it  _must_ start from an arbitrary _selection_  of cases,  from which the definition is developed (e.g., Eltzbacher [1900] 1960). The problem here is that the selection lacks justification besides anecdote,  convention,  or personal  preference (see van der Walt and Schmidt  2009: 35). The basis  for the category is  thus itself unreasonable; its boundaries end up equally so.

When Graham insists that anarchism has many ‘schools,’ he fails to provide a reasoned basis for this assertion. Having insisted _Black Flame_ has a ‘completely circular’ methodology, Graham simply asserts his claim, and then finds data that fits. When the claim  is  disputed,  he  can invoke  the  data thus  generated,  as evidence to support the claim’s veracity, thereby presenting alternatives as ‘narrow’—a tautology.

Jun asserts, also without serious grounds, that ‘anarchism’ exists ‘throughout human history.’ Once this is taken as true, it is easy enough to find an anarchist  ‘orientation’ everywhere. The problem is that the definition rests upon nothing solid. Jun’s story of the medieval Catholic’s limitations reveals his assumptions: anarchism self-evidently exists universally; disagreement is evidence of intolerant ‘excommunication’ or parochial ignorance.

But the basis for the superiority, even validity, of Jun’s definition is never initially established.

To return  to Jun’s  medieval  Catholic:  it is  well-established that the Christian Church first appeared two thousand years ago, attracting police, public, and scholarly attention; also that Catholicism was one of its main branches. By contrast, it is hardly self-evident that ‘anarchism’ has existed ‘throughout history,’ or that the movement of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Kim, Makhno, Mechoso, Thibedi et al. was merely one isolated branch.


And what do Graham and Jun mean by ‘anarchism’? For Graham, a ‘doctrine’ wanting society ‘without  government,’ or ‘formal structures of hierarchy, command, control and obedience’ (Graham 2005: xii–xiv). For Jun, a loose ‘orientation,’ fusing ‘radical  antiauthoritarianism  and radical  egalitarianism,’  opposing ‘morally unjustifiable . . . authority and inequality,’ and ‘unnatural’ or ‘arbitrary’ inequality, coercion or domination.

These are rather different claims, and in neither case is their validity obvious.  Why  is  either better than that of _Black Flame_  or one another?  Is anarchism  a ‘doctrine,’  several  ‘doctrines,’ or an ‘orientation’? Opposed to hierarchy or inequality?

There is no way of really resolving these issues, since this is discussion of _a priori_ assertions. And these are also replete with ambiguities: Is _informal_ hierarchy acceptable to Graham’s anarchists, or ‘obedience’ to agreed norms or essential ‘control’? In Jun’s case: what of ‘morally’ _justifiable_ inequality, or the coercion and domination  that is  neither  ‘arbitrary’  nor ‘unjustified,’ like the military actions of the 1936 Durruti Column?

And  there  is,  again,  the  problem  of  arbitrary  inclusion/ exclusion.  Both  Graham and Jun  include  in  their  ‘anarchist’ gallery,  figures  that  demonstrably  do  not  conform  to  either definitions, such as Stirner—who rejected any constraints on individual’s right to ‘take’ by ‘might’ whatever they wanted, regardless of ‘justice,’ ‘truth’  and ‘equality’ (Stirner [1844] 1907: 200, 339, 421, 472).

And here we come full circle on the problems of vague definitions.


Graham claims that insisting that anarchism has definite historical referents is ‘analogous to reducing Marxism to canonical figures  and  texts’;  he  speaks  of  _Black Flame_ as   promoting ‘dogma,’ while Jun invokes spectres of ‘mass excommunications.’

Such points  are  rather  unpleasantly  framed,  tainting _Black Flame_ with  a scent  of heresy—argument-by-labelling  that does not take us anywhere. Graham’s own anthology work, after all, is a definite attempt to construct a canon of ‘figures and texts’; Jun, too, admits that all political traditions entail some exclusions.   If this means ‘dogma’ or ‘excommunication,’ the charge must apply to Graham and Jun as well.


The issue is not, then, _whether_ anarchism has definite ‘canonical figures and texts,’ but _which_ merit inclusion. Vague claims about the nature of anarchism, developed through weak methodologies, cannot provide an adequate basis, since they entail deeply flawed definitions.

For its  part,  _Black Flame’s_  approach suggests  the  need to throw overboard spurious  canons like  the ‘seven  sages,’  and to instead  develop  a historically-based,  global canon,  an accurate reflection of anarchism (and syndicalism) as a historical and contemporary current.

This  must necessarily  include  Bakunin  and Kropotkin,  and while Stirner, Tolstoy and Thatcher have no justified place, figures like Goldman, He Zhen, Infantes, Landauer, Liu, Flores Magón, Makhno, Mechoso, Osugi, Rouco Buela, Shin, Szabó, and Thibedi must surely be serious candidates for canonical status.

AUTHOR:  Lucien van der Walt works at Rhodes University, South Africa. He is the author (with Michael  Schmidt)  of _Black  Flame:  The  Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism_ (2009), and the editor (with Steve Hirsch) of _Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940_ (2010). He has published widely on labour and left history  and theory,  and political economy.  Involved in union education and working class movements.


[1] Woodcock  (1975) gave Latin America 3 pages, ignoring Africa, Asia, Australasia, and most of Eastern Europe; Joll (1964) gave the rest 9 pages; Marshall (1998) gave 2 of 41 chapters (33 of 706 pages) to Asia and Latin America.

[2 ] For example, his 1905 ‘Anarchism’  (in Kropotkin 1927) deploys  quite contradictory definitions: anarchism  as ancient philosophy (287–288), as ‘first   formulated’   in  the   1790s   (289–290),   as   new,   19th-century, revolutionary socialism (285–287), as a scheme for peaceful reform (290–291) etc.


Bryant, L. 1923. Mirrors of Moscow. New York: Thomas Seltzer.

Eltzbacher, P. [1900]1960. Anarchism. London: Freedom.

Fleming, M. 1979. The Anarchist Way to Socialism: Elisée Reclus and Nineteenth-Century European Anarchism. Lanham, MD: Croom Helm/Rowman Littlefield.

Graham,  R., ed. 2005. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Vol. 1: From Anarchy  to Anarchism, 300 CE to 1939. Montréal: Black Rose.

Joll, J. 1964. The Anarchists. London: Methuen and Co.

Kropotkin, P. 1927. Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets. New York: Dover.

Mao Zedong. [1949] 1971. “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.”  Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

Marshall, P. 1998. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. New York: Harper Perennial.

Rocker, R. [1938] 1989. Anarcho-syndicalism. London: Pluto Press.

Stirner, M. [1844] 1907. The Ego and His Own. New York: B.R. Tucker.

Thatcher, M. 1996. “Speech  at Poznan Academy of Economics,” July 4:

Van der Walt, L. and S.J. Hirsch. 2010. “Rethinking Anarchism and Syndicalism:  The Colonial  and Post-colonial  Experience,  1870–1940,” in Lucien van der Walt and S.J. Hirsch, eds., Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940. Leiden: Brill.

Van der Walt, L. and M. Schmidt. 2009. Black  Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, Vol. 1.: Counter-Power. Oakland: AK Press.

Woodcock,  G. 1975.  Anarchism, rev. edn. London: Penguin.


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