Black flag – re-discussing anarchism

Image: Carlos Cruz-Diez


Introduction of the author to the second edition of the book

Black flag (re)discusses anarchism theoretically, based on a wide range of authors and episodes. Noting the theoretical and historical problematic of the reference books on the subject, I carry out a “return to the principles”, writing a new and innovative “what is anarchism”.

In addition to critically discussing the current bibliography, I conceptualize anarchism through an adequate method, based on classic and contemporary anarchists from the five continents, I re-elaborate the discussion about currents, pointing out the main debates that took place among anarchists, and I reflect on the emergence, the extent and historical impact of anarchism.

This second edition of the book, published by Autonomia Literária, has a revision in relation to the first, and also a new afterword, of more than 60 pages, written by Lucien van der Walt, a South African researcher, who I consider the greatest The world's contemporary expert on anarchism. Next, I highlight the main arguments of this book.


Problems with reference studies

Reference studies of anarchism have significant problems of a theoretical-methodological nature, involving: the database (historical and geographic) with which they work, the way they situate anarchism in history and the way they read history; the definitions of anarchism elaborated and adopted; the conclusions drawn from their analyses. Such problems make investigations difficult and do not allow the elaboration, adequately, of definitions of anarchism, its debates, its currents and its historical trajectory.

It is necessary to reiterate, as I have already said, that one cannot generalize when talking about “reference studies” of anarchism, since they have considerable differences and were produced in different contexts. Furthermore, as I have emphasized, they also have qualities. However, it cannot be denied that they also present serious problems for contemporary analyzes of this object.

Exposing these problems more clearly, we can mention: the restricted set of authors and episodes taken into account in the investigations, as well as generalizations from this restricted database; the almost exclusive focus on Western Europe or the North Atlantic axis; ahistorical approaches (which claim that anarchism has always existed) and those that link anarchism to the terminological use and/or self-identification of anarchists (which claim that anarchism emerged in the XNUMXth century, in the first half of the XNUMXth century, etc.); the focus on great men, with the use of history seen from above; the disregard of the social vectors of anarchism; inadequate definitions of anarchism (which conceptualize it as anti-statism, opposition to domination, antithesis of Marxism, etc.), which do not allow it to be properly understood or differentiated from other ideologies; theoretical approaches without historical basis and vice versa.

From these theoretical-methodological problems derive, to a large extent, erroneous conclusions about anarchism, which claim that it: constitutes an incoherent ideology; did not have a significant popular impact; it mobilized narrow class bases, restricting itself to peasants and artisans in decline, failing to adapt to industrial capitalism; it practically ended after the defeat in the Spanish Revolution, in 1939, an episode that even constitutes an exception in anarchist history, as it was one of the few cases in which anarchism became a broad mass movement; it is synonymous with antistatism and/or antithesis of Marxism; it is based on idealistic, spontaneous, individualistic and youthful foundations.

To solve these problems, I adopted a theoretical-methodological approach quite different from the reference studies, explained below.


Theoretical-methodological approach

An approach grounded in a historical method and a broad set of data, which interacts with the notions of totality and interdependence, allows the problems of reference studies to be solved and an adequate investigation of anarchism to be carried out.

Aiming to overcome the problem of the amplitude of the analyzed data, I notably increased the set of authors and episodes evaluated. In the chapter “Redefining Anarchism”, which conceptualizes the object, I used as a basis more than 50 authors, from the five waves and the five continents. In the chapter “Emergence, Extension and Impact of Anarchism”, I mentioned a wide range of initiatives and episodes in which anarchists were involved, also in the five waves and on the five continents. As with any theoretical formulation, generalizations were necessary. However, I tried to carry them out using a much larger database than the reference studies. The basically Eurocentric or North Atlantic focus was changed to a global approach.

Seeking to solve the problem of ahistorical approaches, I adopted a historical method, which made it possible to situate anarchism in time and space and subsidize theoretical reflection, from a broad historiographical base. It was possible to analyze the emergence of anarchism during the second half of the XNUMXth century, directly linked to the development of the International and the Alliance, demonstrating how, in less than two decades, due to numerous factors linked to that context, it spread to different locations. and, until the end of the XNUMXth century, it had put into practice and theoretically conceived its great strategies.

The notions of totality and interdependence made it possible to unite theory, practice and history of anarchism, thought and action, form and content, anarchism and its social vectors – in particular syndicalism with a revolutionary intention (revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism) –, criticisms and anarchist propositions .

It was also possible to solve the problems caused by analyzes that take form through content, based on semantic discussions and the self-identification of anarchists. The perspectives of the “history seen from below” and the “new history of work” adopted, allowed solving the methodological problems that involve the historical analyses; I sought to explain anarchism without an exclusive focus on great men, based on a wide range of authors and episodes.

This theoretical-methodological approach allowed a more adequate discussion of anarchism, whose foundations are explained below.



Among the fundamental elements that can be affirmed in relation to anarchism are: its definition as a coherent ideology or doctrine, a type of revolutionary socialism, which can be described through a precise set of principles; the rational elaboration of criticisms, propositions and fundamental strategies, on which its two currents are established: insurrectionist anarchism and mass anarchism; its wide popular impact among workers and peasants, in towns and fields; its permanent and global historical trajectory, from its emergence, in the second half of the XNUMXth century, to the present.

These elements directly oppose the erroneous conclusions of reference studies and other works.

In conceptual terms, the definition of anarchism carried out, based on a set of categories, concepts and a conceptual standardization, allowed the understanding of anarchism, providing the bases for its differentiation from other ideologies and doctrines, as in the cases of Marxism, in its reformist and revolutionary versions of nationalism, liberalism, mutualism, etc.

With this, I demonstrated that anarchism is not synonymous with individualism, anti-statism or antithesis of Marxism. Even though individual freedom is a central element of anarchism, it has historically been inserted within a broader notion of collective freedom and the very notion of socialism, making any definitions of anarchism unfeasible as a synonym for individualism.

In their critique of domination, anarchists focus on political aspects, among which is the state. However, they also criticize economic dominations, such as the exploitation of labor, and ideological and cultural dominations. On class basis, they seek to overcome class domination, but also gender, imperialism and race. In addition, anarchism asserts the defense of self-management and a set of strategic elements, which, taken together with the anarchist critique of domination, demonstrate the impossibility of anarchism being conceptualized as synonymous with anti-statism.

This same definition allows identifying similarities and differences with historical traditions of Marxism. There are similarities in the rationale of their criticisms and propositions; in the criticism of domination, especially class domination and, mainly, the exploitation of labor, as well as gender domination; in defense of the class struggle and the classist perspective of struggle; in the search for the end of social classes and an egalitarian society. However, there are substantial differences, mainly with regard to: the transformation strategy, involving the role of the State in the revolutionary process; the relationship between the means and ends of struggles; to the way of conceiving power and the very mode of power of the future society; to the conception of relations between ethics and politics, which involve the differences between adversaries and enemies.

Through a historical analysis, and depending on the currents and the moment in question, other differences can still be identified, in relation to: the notion of dictatorship of the proletariat as a transitional period to reach communism; the conception of the revolutionary subject and who are the agents of social transformation; the way of dealing with national dominations and with imperialism itself; to the way of relating class and non-class, economic and non-economic dominations.

In the same way, I demonstrated that anarchism is based on rational analyses, methods and theories that are not idealistic, if taken into account the meaning of metaphysical and theological explanations of reality. Based on discussions about the relationship between facts and ideas, between voluntary human actions and social structures, it can be said that, among anarchists, different social theories were developed and used. Various positions were adopted, as seen in their conceptions of the relationships between social spheres. Thus, even if idealism is defined as an absolute priority of ideas over facts, and voluntary human actions over social structures, anarchism cannot be considered, in general, idealistic.

Still related to this problem, it should be considered that the relations between anarchism and idealism, anarchism and utopianism, taken in its pejorative sense, have been carried out by their political opponents. They aim to disqualify and/or delegitimize it, placing it as something disconnected from reality, from material facts, from science and opposed to other socialisms connected to reality, materialist and scientific. As I have argued, social theories of anarchism have always sought to connect it with reality through different positions on the role of material facts. It can be said that there is no point in talking about scientific socialism; such an initiative has only a rhetorical function for the purposes of self-legitimization.

The arguments supported in the discussions about anarchist debates and currents allowed a more adequate understanding of anarchist positions in relation to politics, organization and short-term struggles and, in this way, to relativize statements from studies of reference: that anarchists deny politics and democracy itself, defend in all cases an all-or-nothing policy, being against reforms, or even that they are always spontaneous or against organization.

Anarchists have always defended a conception of politics and power, although in order to substantiate this argument, the present study has dedicated itself to a redefinition and re-discussion of terms and concepts; in most cases, anarchists were in favor of short-term gains and organization, although there were many anarchists who were opposed to struggles for reform and organization.

In general, anarchists support a determined conception of politics and power and seek to intervene in the correlation of forces in society through fundamental strategies. Historically, they defended, in most cases, struggles for reforms, insofar as they strengthened revolutionary struggles, as well as the anarchists' need for organization; in the minority of cases, they denied these short-term struggles and the need for organization.

I proposed, in accordance with the arguments in question, to reformulate the anarchist canon, sustaining, based on scholars of these authors, that Godwin, Stirner, Tolstoy, Godwin and even Proudhon are not anarchists; at the same time, I mentioned the need to expand this canon, with the inclusion of several other anarchists.

On the extent and impact of anarchism, both were broad and significant; historically, they extend from 1868 to the present, and geographically, they span the entire globe. Anarchism mobilized different dominated classes, including, and mainly, the urban proletariat, but also rural workers, peasants, precarious, marginalized and poor people in general. These elements oppose the conclusions of the reference studies of anarchism about: the restriction of its impact and its extension; its exclusive bases in peasants and artisans; its termination in 1939; the Spanish exceptionality; its restricted relationship with young people and its own characterization as a youth phenomenon.

Regarding the argument of inconsistency, the book sought to demonstrate that, even though there are relevant debates and differences among anarchists – which constitute, to a large extent, the bases for establishing their currents – there is a significant coherence, demonstrated in the definition of anarchism elaborated and discussed, summarized in the political-ideological principles presented.

Certainly, among the greatest anarchists one must include Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin. As I argued, this coherence can even be seen from a much broader canon than that used by several reference studies. However, the demonstration of this coherence had to be carried out from a new theoretical-methodological approach, which implied considerable changes in the way of analyzing the object.

*Felipe Correa he is a university professor, researcher and editor; he runs the Institute of Anarchist Theory and History (ITHA). He is the author, among other books, of Freedom or Death: Theory and Practice of Mikhail Bakunin (Spark).



Felipe Correa. Black flag: re-discussing anarchism. São Paulo, Literary Autonomy, 2022, 476 pages.

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