Black Flame

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Or what has Proudhon done for us? And, again, apologies to Monty Python...

I'm a friend of AK Press, something I would recommend all anarchists to do. For a monthly standing order, you not only get all the books AK Press publish but you also give them a regular source of income and ensure that yet more anarchist books get published. Yes, of course, they also publish non-anarchist works but only an idiot would be bothered by that (diversity makes good sense, as the sales of the non-anarchist books helps raise AK's profile and gets them a source of income). For people in the UK, please email AK about it (

The drawbacks are that you get books you would never want (but you can give those away -- that is why charity shops exist!) and, sometimes, there is a delay in getting your Friends package so you see a great book in a shop but have to wait because you know you will get it free soonish. But as AK-UK are a very small co-operative, that is understandable -- they do a great job and are not thanked enough for it!

I mention this because I got two very good books in my last Friends parcel, David Berry's excellent A History of the French Anarchist Movement 1917 to 1945. and the equally brilliant Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism by Michael Schmidt and Lucien Van der Walt. I should note that Michael and Lucien put me in their lengthy list of acknowledgements and I get name checked in an endnote in their account of Italian syndicalism and Fascism (post-First World War Italy is an important period and something I've written on, not only in An Anarchist FAQ (or AFAQ)).

I'm always a bit wary of being too critical of comrade's work as some clueless propertarian or Leninist will quote out of context and put it on Wikipedia! I do get the impression people forget that the electronic age ensures that a less than comradely comment or an ambiguous or ill-thought-out statement will be inserted into Wikipedia by those seeking to muddy the water about anarchism. So I'll reiterate how good I think Black Flame is. Given that I have only two somewhat minor quibbles of their book says it all, I should hope! I also hope that the two comrades will take my comments as intended, as positive feedback to an outstanding contribution to anarchist theory and history.

So, first, what does Black Flame get right? Well, almost everything! It concentrates on the mainstream of anarchism, class struggle anarchism (collectivist, communist and syndicalist anarchism, in other words). It is comprehensive, discussing all important issues, people and movements. The authors are right in showing the anarchist roots of syndicalism and exposing the Leninist myth that anarchism and syndicalism are fundamentally different (I've done as much myself). They debunk the notion that Sorel was the creator or main theoretical of syndicalism. They place anarchism where it should be: as part of the wider socialist movement, the libertarian wing. They are right to say that anarchism "a product of the capitalist world and the working class it created" (p. 96) and that thinkers and activists alike "defined anarchism as an anticapitalist ideology and a form of socialism" (p. 46). They do a great job in discussing the ins and outs of our movement and theory, using history to illuminate the ideas and show how they were applied in practice.

So what are my criticisms? Well, there are two. One is minor, one is more substantial.

The first, minor, criticism is the claim that Daniel De Leon, Big Bill Haywood and James Connolly can be included in the broad anarchist tradition. They were Marxists! By no stretch of the imagination can they be considered anarchists. Yes, they were supporters of syndicalism but they were Marxists.

The reason why, for example, "we have described De Leonism as a form of syndicalism" is that "syndicalism was a type of anarchism" and "self-identification as a Marxist or an anarchist is less important than the content of the ideas adopted, and the ideas of the IWW are certainly within the ambit of the broad anarchist tradition" (p. 161). But that is confusing a tactic with a theory. Syndicalism is an anarchist tactic, and like other tactics can be utilised by non-anarchists. Thus we can have Marxist as well as anarchist syndicalists (although the irony of Marxists subscribing to the ideas of Bakunin rather than Marx should be noted). And I think that they themselves know this as they have to suggest that the Italian syndicalists who later became fascists were not really syndicalists. But they were, they just happened to be Marxist syndicalists who broke with key ideas of syndicalism!

So, as Malatesta and Kropotkin always stressed, syndicalism was a tactic or a strategy. Like any tactic or strategy, it can be accepted and used by followers of other political ideas -- and it has. At best it could be argued that these Marxists were closer to anarchism than your typical social democrat of the time. However, to include them as anarchists (under the equation of anarchism and syndicalism) seems problematic in the extreme. I would never dream of calling libertarian Marxists like council communist Paul Mattick an anarchist, rather they were people who are extremely close to anarchism and, on many key issues, actually closer to Bakunin than Marx. While why they continued to call themselves Marxists is a good question, the fact remains they did so. As Black Flame notes, there are "libertarian strains like council communism" (p. 42) in Marxism which suggests that anarchists have no longer the monopoly in the use of "libertarian" in the socialist movement rather than they are anarchists!

Still, this is a minor issue. They are right to suggest that the IWW should be considered as part of the wide anarchist tradition. Its position on revolutionary unionism is straight out of Bakunin, not Marx. However, that some Marxists embraced the tactic of syndicalism does not make them anarchists just closer to us than more orthodox ones. So while de Leonism bases itself on syndicalism, it is not anarchist nor part of the broad anarchist tradition.

My major criticism is about their position on Proudhon and his relegation to being a forerunner of anarchism rather than an anarchist. It seems somewhat staggering to read that Proudhon was not an anarchist but also that "[f]rom Proudhon, the anarchists took the notion of the self-management of the means of production, the idea of free federation, a hatred of capitalism and landlordism, and a deep distrust of the state"! (p. 84) All of which reminded me of Monty Python's Life of Brian and the classic What have the Romans done for us? sketch:

So, except for the anti-statism, anti-capitalism, the anti-landlordism, the federalism, the communes, the self-management, the decentralisation, the critique of property, the analysis of surplus value being produced within the workplace, the vision of a revolution from below, the call for working class autonomy, the name "anarchist", what has Proudhon done for us?

So, you can see my point! Yes, Proudhon was not a revolutionary, he was against strikes and unions and was a sexism prat (his racism did not infect his political writings and became known long after his death). Yet, really, given his contributions to anarchism, contributions which later anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin built upon, can we seriously suggest he was not an anarchist? Yes, he was not a revolutionary class struggle anarchist but not an anarchist at all?

I should note I've added a couple of extra points of agreement between Proudhon and subsequent revolutionary anarchists, namely the vision of a revolution from below, exploitation being rooted in the workplace and critique of property. I had better explain why I've included them.

As noted in section A.5 Proudhon used the term "revolution from below": "What serious and lasting Revolution was not made from below, by the people?" While not actually a revolutionary in the sense of aiming for an insurrection, Proudhon recognised the importance of being a "revolutionary from below" and of "collective activity, of popular spontaneity." Or, as he put it in 1846, "the proletariat must emancipate itself" [quoted by George Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography, p. 143 and p. 125] Subsequent anarchists put this vision of social change at the heart of their ideas, indeed the term "socialism from below" should really be used as an alternative for anarchism (regardless of the claims of some Leninists).

As for the second point, Black Flame is wrong. It states that "workers were not exploited in the market, as Proudhon believed, but at the workplace. Workers sold their labour power or ability to work for a wage, but the value they added to goods through their labour, their actual work, was higher than the value of their wage." (p. 86) That exploitation occurs in the workplace is correct, but it is wrong to suggest that "Proudhon believed" otherwise! In fact, he considered exploitation to occur in the workplace as well as in the market -- and did so from What is Property? onwards!

As noted in section C.2: Why is capitalism exploitative?, Proudhon explicitly argued that property "is the right to enjoy and dispose at will of another's goods - the fruit of an other's industry and labour" [What is Property?, p. 171] He was well aware that workers' produced a value greater than what they received in wages:


"Whoever labours becomes a proprietor – this is an inevitable deduction from the principles of political economy and jurisprudence. And when I say proprietor, I do not mean simply (as do our hypocritical economists) proprietor of his allowance, his salary, his wages, – I mean proprietor of the value his creates, and by which the master alone profits . . . The labourer retains, even after he has received his wages, a natural right in the thing he was produced." [What is Property?, pp. 123-4]


Yes, this is a sketch and Proudhon did not develop this insight as well as Marx did subsequently but it points to an awareness that exploitation was rooted in the workplace, that workers produce more than their wages are worth for their boss. So exploitation is based on wage-labour (hence Proudhon's repeated demand for its abolition!).

Proudhon's concept of collective force is also key here. He argued that "the capitalist has paid as many times one day's wages" rather than the workers collectively and, as such, "he has paid nothing for that immense power which results from the union and harmony of labourers, and the convergence and simultaneousness of their efforts. Two hundred grenadiers stood the obelisk of Luxor upon its base in a few hours; do you suppose that one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days? Nevertheless, on the books of the capitalist, the amount of wages would have been the same." Therefore, the capitalist has "paid all the individual forces" but "the collective force still remains to be paid. Consequently, there remains a right of collective property" which the capitalist "enjoy[s] unjustly." [What is Property?, p. 127 and p. 130] He returned to this in subsequent works and explains why he was so keen on co-operatives (associated labour): only co-operative workplaces can ensure that the benefits of co-operative labour are not monopolised by the few who happen to own, and so control, the means of production (a point he explicitly makes in General Idea of the Revolution).

And as discussed in section G.4.1: Is wage labour consistent with anarchist principles?, Marx concurred. Without mentioning Proudhon, he stressed how a capitalist buys the labour-power of 100 men and "can set the 100 men to work. He pays them the value of 100 independent labour-powers, but does not pay them for the combined labour power of the 100." [Capital, Vol. 1, p. 451]

Finally, as regards Proudhon, I really should note that his position on property was effectively one of socialisation and that the mutualists in the First International cannot be equated to him (Guerin makes the same point in his essay "From Proudhon and Bakunin"). Yes, the "mutualists supported small proprietors" (p. 84) but unless you believe in forced collectivisation, so do we all! Similarly, yes the International and subsequent anarchists "generalised acceptance of common ownership as a core demand of the popular classes" (p. 84) but that position was hardly alien to Proudhon! After all, he repeatedly stressed that the means of production could not be owned:


"This, then, is the first point settled: property in product, if we grant so much, does not carry with it property in the means of production; that seems to me to need no further demonstration . . . all, if you say so, are proprietors of their products -- not one is proprietor of the means of production. The right to product is exclusive -- jus in re; the right to means is common -- jus ad rem." [What is Property?, pp. 120-1]


Although he was not a communist, he obviously favoured socialisation of the means of production in the sense of free access (well, he did consider himself a socialist after all!). And let us not forget that Proudhon, like Kropotkin, argued that "land cannot be appropriated" (the title of chapter 3, part I of What is Property?). Thus "the land is indispensable to our existence" and "consequently a common thing, consequently insusceptible of appropriation" [What is Property?, p. 107] In the 1860s, he repeated this: "What I cannot accept, regarding land, is that the work put in gives a right to ownership of what has been worked on." [Selected Writings, p. 129] He generalised this, arguing that "all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor." This means "the farmer does not appropriate the field which he sows" and "all capital . . . being the result of collective labour" is "collective property." [What is Property?, p. 153 and p. 128] Hence Proudhon's support for co-operatives based on equal rights of all employed within.

And I haven't even mentioned Proudhon's "agro-industrial federation" and its obvious links to Bakunin's vision of a federation of workers' councils! Hence Daniel Guérin's comment:


"Proudhon and Bakunin were 'collectivists,' which is to say they declared themselves without equivocation in favour of the common exploitation, not by the State but by associated workers of the large-scale means of production and of the public services. Proudhon has been quite wrongly presented as an exclusive enthusiast of private property." ["From Proudhon to Bakunin", pp. 23-33, The Radical Papers, Dimitrios I. Roussopoulos (ed.), p. 32]


It is hard not to agree with George Woodcock that "What is Property? embraces the core of nineteenth century anarchism", except the call for revolution. "But all the rest of later anarchism is there, spoken or implied: the conception of a free society united by association, of workers controlling the means of production. Later Proudhon was to elaborate other aspects: the working class political struggle as a thing of its own, federalism and decentralism as means of re-shaping society, the commune and the industrial association as the important units of human intercourse, the end of frontiers and nations. But What is Property? . . . remains the foundation on which the whole edifice of nineteenth century anarchist theory was to be constructed." [The Raven, no. 31, p. 210]

Yes, modern class struggle anarchism, the international anarchist movement as such, does date from the First International. Yes, Proudhon was not exactly of that school but most of his ideas played a role in creating it. There are differences in tactics and, with the rise of communist-anarchism, a difference in the vision of a free society in terms of distribution, but Proudhon really cannot be excluded from anarchism. Perhaps I'm missing the point, the wider picture -- like the Centurion in Life of Brian? Judge for yourself:

I don't think so, for the reasons I've indicated above. I hope I've indicated why such class struggle anarchists as Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rocker and Guerin all concluded that Proudhon was more than just a forerunner to anarchism. He was far more -- indeed it is hard to imagine what anarchism would be like without Proudhon's influence (at the very, very, very least, not called anarchism!). Yes, Proudhon (like Bakunin and Kropotkin) was generalising from actual working class practice (as he himself noted again and again). Just as Varlin moved to a collectivist position independently of Bakunin, so elements of Proudhon's ideas would have become part of our ideas but as Proudhon existed we should acknowledge his contribution! That said, Bakunin's comments on Proudhon are fair. He was, at heart, an idealist but his "instinct" of freedom served him better than Marx. And talking of which, I should note that there are distinct similarities to Marx's praise for co-operatives (in the inaugural address to the International and instructions before the Geneva) and with Proudhon's early work (most obviously, General Idea of the Revolution but elsewhere, too)

One weakness of Black Flame is that it mentions the Paris Commune twice and Eugene Varlin not once. As I've discussed at length, the event was considered critical by the first communist-anarchists -- Kropotkin, for example, returned to it repeatedly -- and its Proudhonian influences are obvious (unless you read Marx and Lenin!). It also implies that Tucker was Proudhon's just "disciple", although Tucker systematically ignored (probably rejected) such key aspects of Proudhon's ideas as the need for co-operatives, communes and the agro-industrial and communal federations. As suggested in AFAQ, in the Most-Tucker debates it was the communist-anarchist who subscribed to most of Proudhon's positions rejecting reformism via free credit and competition (which, ironically, were what Tucker embraced). Attempts to equate Proudhon and American individualist anarchism are not convincing, in spite of the obvious influence of Proudhon on the likes of Tucker (and name invoking by the latter!). As AFAQ suggests, Proudhon was fundamentally a social anarchist and European mutualism part of social anarchism.

And since (as part of my research for the Proudhon Reader) I'm rereading Proudhon's System of Economical Contradictions just now as well as flicking through Marx's The Philosophy of Misery I can say that although Marx makes a few good points (in between showing off how many books he had read), many of his attacks are based on selective and out-of-context quoting (plus at least one "synthesised" quote in which Marx makes up out of a lengthy passage in order to mock the Frenchman).

Saying all that, I can understand why Proudhon is downplayed as anarchism, considered as a movement and a theory is predominantly communist/syndicalist anarchist. so I would agree with Black Flame that the modern anarchist movement was born in the First International but that it is a logical evolution from Proudhon's ideas -- as Bakunin suggested (as quoted in Black Flame, Bakunin thought his ideas were "Proudhonism widely developed and pushed to these, its final consequences" [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 198]). During the 1870s and 1880s it became clearer on its aims, developing its distinctive symbols from recognised symbols of working class direct action and resistance (such as the Black Flag). Anarchism is, fundamentally, a socialistic theory and movement and part of the wider socialist movement, its libertarian wing. As such, Proudhon was an anarchist although not a revolutionary, class struggle one. His ideas created modern anarchism just as much as the union activity of the French mutualists/collectivists like Varlin and the revolutionary passion of Bakunin.

This all flows from that sadly too common "problem" of how to define anarchism. Black Flame has an excellent discussion of this, effectively refuting those who reduce anarchism to just "anti-statism" (a favourite of Marxists and propertarians, unsurprisingly enough as both have an interest to exclude anarchism from socialism in spite of the evidence). Anarchism is a form of socialism, although I can understand why some anarchists distance themselves from it as the mainstream of socialism has been statist and a disappointment when not totalitarian!). This can be seen from Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and Malatesta all calling themselves socialists. Significantly, Tucker also considered his ideas as socialist and his theories had socialistic elements ( an awkward fact once admitted by Rothbard -- and Black Flame rightly notes that "anarcho"-capitalism is an "oxymoron" and that anarchists had "nothing but contempt for capitalism and loathed economic liberals" (p. 52)).

So Black Flame right to argue that "the vague definition of anarchism as anti-statism also fails. It is eminently logical, using this definition, to include classical Marxism within the anarchist category, given that this doctrine's ultimate objective is a stateless society without alienation and compulsion." However, "the exclusion of classical Marxism from standard accounts of anarchism" is "revealing" as it suggests that "the writers of the standard works implicitly apply criteria like strategy to their definition of anarchism, and this in turn means that these works have conceded that there are serious difficulties in defining anarchism merely as an opposition to the state." Thus this "definition is vague, inadequate, and inconsistently applied" and best rejected. (p. 41, p. 42)

As an aside, I should also note that their point about Marxism raises the valid question of why Rothbard was considered an anarchist given that his political strategy followed Marx in urging the capture of the republican state. "I see no other conceivable strategy for the achievement of liberty than political action," Rothbard stated. A "militant and abolitionist [Libertarian Party] in control of Congress could wipe out all the [non-'libertarian'] laws overnight . . . No other strategy for liberty can work." [Konkin on Libertarian Strategy] So the party seized power and the state withers away, to coin a phrase... This suggests that Rothbard's ideology is better termed "Marxian-capitalism" as it accepts Marxist political ideas while rejecting Marxist economic notions (compare to the wrong suggestion that Rothbard accepted individualist anarchist political ideas but rejected their economic ones).

By basing themselves on the actual development of anarchism as a theory, Black Flame makes an important and correct point. While the list of grand-thinkers of anarchism usually includes Proudhon, Tolstoy, Godwin and Stirner this is flawed for the reasons the book outlines. Only Proudhon impacted on the movement. In terms of Tolstoy, Godwin and Stirner, they had no influence on how anarchism developed as a movement (Vernon Richards made the same point in his commentary in Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas).

The latter two were rediscovered in the 1890s and the obvious links with anarchism recognised. Nicholas Walter debunked the myth that Godwin's Political Justice was a "sacred" text of anarchism some time ago, and the review is included in the essential collection The Anarchist Past and Other Essays (as reviewed by me in the new, hot off the presses Black Flag no. 229). Unsurprisingly, AFAQ quotes Godwin infrequently and only discusses him in detail to refute unfounded propertarian claims he was one of their forerunners. Significantly, though, Godwin's critique of property had obvious similarities with Proudhon's.

As for Stirner, this is more problematic. While, in terms of impact at the time, he mostly influenced Marx, he did influence the movement when he was rediscovered in the 1890s (repeated attempts by Marx and Engels to suggest Bakunin was influenced by Stirner are a joke. While this influence was greatest in individualist anarchist circles, he did influence Emma Goldman and others in her circle. Similarly, Glasgow anarchists in the 1940s combined Stirner and Kropotkin, taking his idea of an Union of Egoists literally and combining it with syndicalism. So while he should not be too concentrated upon (as per George Woodcock's Anarchism, in which he gets a whole chapter next to Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin), he is included in anarchist histories for a reason. AFAQ has a section on him and I would simply note that liking Stirner does not preclude support for communist-anarchism, nor to take everything he says as written-in-stone! I have to admit to having a soft-spot for the black-sheep of the movement, mostly because he was obviously enjoying himself when he was writing The Ego and Its Own (which does make very valid points, at times).

Tolstoy was anti-capitalist and anti-state but he agreed with existing well-defined anarchist principles and, likewise, had no influence in the development of them (although he did influence some anarchists in terms of seeking a pacifist strategy). Tolstoy is problematic in-so-much as his religious viewpoints and extreme pacifism are at odds with most anarchists' positions. Yet he was anti-capitalist, anti-landlord and did influence people obviously in the mainstream anarchist movement (including syndicalists like Bart de Ligt, see his important book The Conquest of Violence). Why say Tolstoy was not an anarchist? Again, though, it is right to say that his influence was nowhere as important as Bakunin or Kropotkin (or even Proudhon) and so I would say he should be mentioned but not concentrated upon.

As such, Black Flame is right to not discuss Tolstoy, Godwin and Stirner in detail, just as American individualist anarchism would not be discussed much either. Their impact on movement was not large, with individualist anarchism being in the minority (even in America they were quickly out-numbered by social anarchism). AFAQ goes into their ideas in some detail but that is to explain why they should not be reduced to being a footnote to propertarianism (as can be seen by how the leading propertarians dismiss their economic and social ideas!). In terms of anarchism, the mainstream is social anarchism (Proudhon's mutualism, collectivism, communism and syndicalism) and, in particular, revolutionary social anarchism (i.e., the last three) and AFAQ reflects that (I hope!).

Ultimately, as Black Flame stresses anarchism needs to be defined in terms of its ideas and history, not in terms of who had called themselves an "anarchist" or has been so-labelled. There is a common thread of anarchist thinkers and movements, opposition to capitalism and statism. While being anti-state is necessary to be an anarchist it is not sufficient -- as can be seen from the fact that anarchists themselves have never restricted their politics to just opposition to the state. As such, Black Flame rightly rejects what I term the "dictionary definition" of anarchism in favour of looking what supporters of anarchism have actually argued -- as if a rich socio-economic theory and social movement can be summed up in a short dictionary "definition"!

So, to summarise, Black Flame gets it mostly right in terms of what they discuss and how it sees anarchism developing. Where it goes wrong is excluding Proudhon from anarchism and being too rigorous in excluding minority trends. Simply stating that the mainstream of anarchism is revolutionary social anarchism (collectivist, communist, and syndicalist anarchism) and so other (minority) strains will not be discussed would have been sufficient. The argument that anarchism is a branch of socialism would not be harmed by this, particularly as even individualist anarchism identified itself as socialistic (even if most anarchists would argue its ideas would not achieve its hopes).

Finally, perhaps it will be objected that there is far too much Monty Python in this blog. Nope, for here is the most famous use of anarcho-syndicalism in popular culture:

I hope I'm not being too harsh. Black Flame really is a wonderful book which every anarchist will enjoy reading. It is well researched, well argued and should be read by every anarchist or socialist interested in anarchism. Do yourself a favour and buy it now! You won't be disappointed.

Until I blog again, be seeing you...


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