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Stuart Christie's Preface to "Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism" (Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt, AK Press)

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Stuart Christie's Preface to Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt, "Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism" (AK Press, San Francisco)

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Preface to Black Flame

Preface to Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt, "Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism" (AK Press, San Francisco)

by Stuart Christie, former political prisoner and radical publisher --2009


To use the metaphor of plant life, the seeds of anarchism have been around since time immemorial, but the plant itself—the ideas and the movement as we understand them today—first germinated in September 1869 during the fourth general congress of the First International in Basel, in Switzerland. They quickly began to spread, take root and bloom in towns, cities and villages across Europe, the Americas and, later, throughout Asia and into Africa. The most immediate manifestations of this were the Lyons uprising of September 1870 and the Paris Commune of March 1871.

The subsequent 138 years of the movement’s history have been characterised by egalitarian dreams, the pursuit of justice, and a never-ending propagandistic cultural and educational activity punctuated by violent and nonviolent direct actions, strikes, insurrections, and aborted and frustrated revolutions.

This anarchist presence in political and social life has not gone unnoticed. Since that first meeting in Basel, anarchists have acquired a reputation for honesty, integrity, selflessness, sacrifice, and struggle. Anarchism’s enemies, on the right and on the left, highlight, in contrast, the anarchists’ so-called “easy” recourse to assassinations and other dramatic headline-grabbing direct actions, with exaggerated, black-and-white images that have influenced historians, media commentators, and politicians.

Since those early days, the red and black flag of anarchism has been—and continues to be—followed by varied and wide sections of the population.

Some historians, such as the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, believe this is something rather abnormal and atypical. “Normality,” in their view, is that the “scientific doctrine” the proletariat needed was Marxist “socialism”; what they found “abnormal” was the extent to which anarchism and its offshoot, syndicalism, had succeeded in putting down roots in some of the most industrial and modern cities in Europe, cities such as Barcelona, and elsewhere, working-class strongholds where Marxist and parliamentary socialism never achieved striking success. In fact, in electoral terms, of all the cities in Western Europe it was only in Germany that an influential mass socialist party managed to consolidate itself [at the time].

Anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism are by no means “exceptional” or “extraordinary” phenomena in the history of political-social movements; it was only after the First World War with the co-option or seduction of “socialist” trade unionism and “socialist” parties into the parliamentary political system that—with the notable exceptions like Spain, Argentina, and Sweden—the influence of anti-political, anti-statist, and direct-action oriented revolutionary syndicalism began to fade elsewhere in the world.

Even though anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism have proved less stable and robust than anarchists could have hoped for—characterised as they have been by both chronological and geographical discontinuity—they nevertheless still bloom when and where least expected. Often disappearing from view and written off by historians such as George Woodcock, they then reappear, unannounced, with explosions of protest.

The present work, however, is neither obituary nor panegyric; it is the first of a two-volume critical analysis of the ongoing evolution of anarchist ideas and movements, the social project for freedom and how best to transform and organise a coercion-free future society based on the principles of communitarianism, direct democracy—and consistency between means and ends.

Nor is it an anthology of anarchist writings or a history of libertarian movements; it is an attempt to define anarchism within the framework of classical Marxism, economic liberalism, and the ideas of P. J. Proudhon, and assess the impact—or not—of these anarchist and syndicalist ideas, and rethink ways to implement these ideas and practices in the global economy of the twenty-first century.

The work is not only an invaluable reference source, it is thought-provoking, insightful and encyclopaedic in scope, synthesizing as it does, a global history of the movement and the ideas which drive it, while at the same time challenging, constructively, many commonly-held views and misconceptions about anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism.


** Stuart Christie is a Scottish anarchist journalist, writer, and translator, born in 1946, who has been active in the movement since the age of sixteen. Having hitchhiked into fascist Spain in 1964 with the intention of assassinating dictator Francisco Franco, Christie and accomplice Fernando Carballo Blanco were arrested. Christie was found in possession of explosives and faced grim execution by garrote, but he was freed three years later after an international campaign for his release by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre. Back in Britain, he helped reestablish the Anarchist Black Cross for the support of political prisoners in Spain and elsewhere—one of the movement’s longest-surviving initiatives—and the journal "Black Flag. " In 1972, he was acquitted of involvement in the Angry Brigade’s sabotage campaign after one of the longest criminal trials in British history. He went on to found Cienfuegos Press and later Christie Books, and remains an active militant contributing to the broader anarchist movement.

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