Tuesday 17 May 2016

Anarchists and the National Question

A review of Steven J Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt (eds.), Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World: The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism and Social Revolution, Brill, The Netherlands, 2010.

Anarchists have traditionally had three responses to the "national question" in colonial and post-colonial societies: unfortunately, the best-known has been a total rejection of any sympathy with the question; a few anarchists uncritically threw themselves into national liberation struggles; but by far the majority position was that of critical support. 

By 1873, when Bakunin, by then a fully-fledged anarchist, threw down the gauntlet to imperialism, writing that “Two-thirds of humanity, 800 million Asiatics, asleep in their servitude, will necessarily awaken and begin to move,” the newly-minted anarchist movement was engaging directly and repeatedly with the challenges of imperialism, colonialism, national liberation movements, and post-colonial regimes. 

In stark contrast, the founders of the "communist" doctrine, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels,  dismissed the colonised and post-colonial world in their Communist Manifesto (1848) as the “barbarian and semi-barbarian countries” and instead stressed the virtues of capitalism (and even imperialism) as an onerous, yet necessary stepping stone to socialism. 

This is why from its emergence in the trade unions of the First international in 1868 until the development of a Marxist-Leninist pseudo-alternative in the early 1920s, it was anarchism and not Marxism which dominated the revolutionary left in the colonial and post-colonial comprador world.

And this book is a groundbreaking series of case studies of those anarchist engagements on the national and national liberation questions in Africa, Asia, colonial Europe, and Latin America. By colonial Europe - an environment where the term is seldom applied outside of the Nazi or Soviet occupations of World War II and its aftermath - I mean Russian-occupied Ukraine and the Makhnovist movement which resisted Russian monarchist, Ukrainian nationalist, foreign German and Austro-Hungarian, and Bolshevik attempts to reconstruct statist exploitation by constructing a revolutionary counter-power, and British-dominated / British-occupied Ireland and the syndicalist responses to that power imbalance. In this regard, Aleksandr Shubin writes on "The Makhnovist Movement and the National Question in the Ukraine, 1917-1921," while Emmet O'Connor contributes the essay "Syndicalism, Industrial unionism, and Nationalism in Ireland."

I must confess that Lucien van der Walt is a friend, comrade and co-author and that I was asked to review this book prior to publication in order to give input into its conceptual framing, but without needing to veer into hagiography, this is an incredibly valuable collection, if unfortunately expensive in hardcover.

Apart from charting a new direction in anarchist colonial / post-colonial studies, this work also contributes to another emerging trend, that of anarchist transnational studies, and here, Kirk Shaffer's essay "Tropical Libertarians: anarchist movements and networks in the Caribbean, Southern United States, and Mexico, 1890s-1920" provides new insights into the transnational linkages between Central America, the Caribbean and the US metropole. 

Dongyoun Hwang's essay "Korean Anarchism before 1945: a regional and transnational approach" tells the tale of how the Korean movement's apogee occurred in exile in Manchuria, while transnationalism in a single city is examined in Edilene Toledo and Luigi Biondi's essay "Constructing Syndicalism and Anarchism Globally: the transnational making of the syndicalist movement in São Paulo, Brazil, 1895-1935."

I personally used the book to construct a comparative analysis of the anarchist movements in South Africa and Egypt, drawing on van der Walt's "Revolutionary syndicalism, communism and the national question in South African socialism, 1886-1928," and on Anthony Gorman's '“Diverse in race, religion and nationality… but united in aspirations of civil progress”: the anarchist movement in Egypt 1860-1940." The result was an essay (with van der Walt's input) my contribution to a book on the roots and adaptations of the anarchist movement around the world that is due out fairly soon.

So clearly this book is provoking further research by other specialists and generalists, but in itself is a mine of region/country-specific information of value to students of specific movements. I just hope that a more affordable edition is made available in soft cover soon - or that individual essays are published online.