Sunday 13 September 2015

Black Dragon Rising: my introduction to Emilio Crisi's Revolución anarquista en Manchuria (1929-1932)

Black Dragon Rising: The Forgotten Revolution in Manchuria
There are parts of the world such as Paraguay, Central African Republic and Kyrgyzstan, that, because of their relative poverty and sheer remoteness are almost unknown to the world, even in this day of instant global telecommunications. And there are nations such as Brittany, Western Sahara, and Baluchistan, that, because they have so long laboured under colonial occupation, are barely recognised as the ethno-geographic entities they are, even in this day of an (official) international framework of national self-determination.
The borderlands of Far East Asia are such places, but Manchuria, the homeland of the Manchu people, so long under the dominance of the Han Chinese, bears the additional burden of being deliberately forgotten by mainstream historians - because suppression of the study of its remarkable Revolution of 1929-1932 became key to the dominant statist narratives of the red fascist dictatorships of Manchuria's neighbours, the USSR, China and North Korea.
Bookended to its west by the high plains of Mongolia and to its east by the mountainous northern border of North Korea, and the swamps of the Maritime Provinces of Russia, to the north by the immense bow of the Amur (Black Dragon) River and to the south by the South China Sea, Manchuria is a massive territory, home to around 47-million people in the 1930s, and comprises 1,3-million square kilometres, larger than France and Germany combined.
And yet knowledge of this vast terrain is fantastically occluded. In popular culture, Manchuria features only as the location of the brainwashing of a US Army major kidnapped during the Korean War and turned into an involuntary assassin, in John Frankenheimer's 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate. In conventional histories of the region, exotic Manchuria is merely the setting of the "Manchurian Incident," a 1931 false-flag dynamiting by a Japanese Imperial Army lieutenant of a section of track of the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway, which was blamed on Chinese militants as an excuse for Japan to invade Manchuria, the spark, in the Far East at least, for the conflict that escalated with the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 blending seamlessly into World War II.
What is entirely neglected is why Imperial Japan invaded remote and rural Manchuria in 1931 at all, a full six years before it marshalled its full resources against its main strategic objective, the Chinese capital of Peking and its prized industrial heartland of Shanghai. The reason for the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria lies in two intertwined histories: that of the independence movements in Korea and Manchuria, and that of the region's anarchist movement, both of which the Japanese would have to crush in order not to have revolutionary Koreans in their rear.
The accepted trajectory of the Far Eastern anarchist movement is currently under serious revision, with internationalist works such as my own and Lucien van der Walt's organisational and ideological history, Global Fire: 150 Fighting Years of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, USA, in process), transnational studies such as Benedict Anderson's history of the Philippine independence movement, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (Verso Books, USA, 2005), and country-specific studies such as Dongyoun Hwang's Korean Anarchism before 1945: a regional and transnational approach (in Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, Hirsch and van der Walt, editors, Brill, The Netherlands, 2010).
Convention has it that anarchism - revolutionary, horizontally-federated direct democracy of the working class, peasantry and poor - and its unionist offspring, syndicalism, first entered the Far East via Japan in about 1906 along two trajectories, one from Japanese students in Paris, and the other from Japanese workers in San Francisco. From Japan, conventions holds, it spread to China, in particular the port cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai (where it became a minority tendency that briefly allied with the Guomindang nationalists in the mid-1920s before succumbing to the communists), and thence into Korea where it led an ephemeral existence, much of it in exile because Japan had annexed Korea in 1910.
But new studies have revealed a more complex picture - and a far more significant movement. The earliest anarchist influences in the region appear to have come either via Portugal into the south China port city of Macau from at least 1900, or via Catalonia into Manila where the first anarcho-syndicalist union was established in 1903. From these ports (and also from Australia and New Zealand), the movement was spread by anarcho-syndicalist seafarers into Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Yokohama - and further afield into Fiji and Burma.
It was rather the Chinese movement than the Japanese that became the "mother" movement of the region, with the first modern Chinese trade union established in Guangzhou by anarcho-syndicalists in 1918 with 11,000 members, whereas Japan's first anarcho-syndicalist union was formed only in 1921 - by which time the anarchists led some 40 unions in Guangzhou alone, plus a 5,000-strong union in Changsha, and even ran the city of Guangzhou as a federalist commune under the anarchist General Chen Jiongming (1878-1933) as governor from 1920-1923 (by comparison, the nascent Chinese Communist Party had only 300 members in 1922). When Japanese anarcho-syndicalist labour consolidated in the formation of the Zenkoku Jiren federation in 1926, it represented around 8,400 workers in printing, textiles, rubber, engineering and other areas, and was slightly smaller than the two other labour federations, the moderate Yūaikai with 20,000 members, and the communist-led federation which claimed 12,500 members. In contrast, in 1925, anarcho-syndicalists dominated the powerful Confederation of Labour Associations (GLH), based in Shanghai, though they split from the GLH later that year after bitter disputes with the Bolsheviks.
But while south China seeded the anarchist movements in Vietnam and Malaya, the movement in Korea was seeded by Korean anarcho-syndicalists working in Japan where they formed trade unions and "black societies" in the mid-1920s, a binary strategy that was implanted within Japanese-occupied Korea itself, where, despite implacable repression against such initiatives, the Wonsan General Trade Union in the port city of that name and several black societies survived into the post-1945 era and even helped reconstruct the movement in its brief spring before the Korean War broke out in 1950, plunging the peninsula into fratricidal conflict.
And yet it was in exile in Manchuria that the Korean movement surpassed the achievements of even the Guangzhou Commune, establishing and defending a popularly-organised liberated zone against Japanese, nationalist and communist incursion for three years in a remarkable libertarian socialist Revolution that remains the most under-studied revolution of the 20th Century. As Emilio Crisi shows in this groundbreaking new study of the "Forgotten Revolution," this zone in Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River) province, a triangular territory bounded by the Amur River to the east, the Sungchangho River valley to the west and the Harbin-Hunchun road to the south, comprised an area of some 350,000km², which Crisi notes is about three times the size of the free zone controlled between 1918 and 1921 by the Makhnovshchina in south-eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the Koreans and Manchurians appear to have managed to have established a far more stable free zone than the Makhnovists, whose battle-lines veered wildly over the map during the ebb and flow of the Ukrainian Revolution. It is crucial to note that this area is not entirely rural: the revolutionary capital of Harbin had more than half a million residents and was an important railway juncture and industrial city.
The Manchurian Revolution, which Crisi calls the "Commune of east Manchuria", drew strength from various quarters. Although Outer Manchuria became de facto Russian from the 1850s and was lost to the record in its own name, Inner Manchuria (Manchuria proper) had experienced a brief period of independence following the defeat of Russia by Japan in 1905 - a seminal event that rocked the colonised world because a "yellow" power had defeated a "white" power - which lasted until it was absorbed by China in 1912. On Korea's annexation in 1910, hard-pressed Korean revolutionaries looked for inspiration to both Manchurian independence and the anarchist-influenced Mexican Revolution of that had broken out the same year (perhaps this is reflected culturally in the sporting of magnificent Zapatista moustaches by the likes of General Kim Jwa-Jin and Yu Rim), and probably also to anarchist assassination plots against figures of authority in Japan (1911 and 1923) and Malaya (1925). They also drew heavily on the decentralist village anarchism of Pyotr Kropotkin and on the anarchist anti-colonialism of Shin Chae-Ho, both of whom were intellectually very influential in the region, as well as on the libertarian socialist experiments in China itself, on the successful urban experience of the Guangzhou Commune and on the half-realised rural experience of Fukien Province in south China. But the Black River Commune was ultimately upheld by the Korean, Manchu and Chinese peasantry whose faith in the experiment gave it form and heart.
The initial inspiration for research into the Manchurian Revolution is the work of former Korean Anarchist Federation militant Ha Ki-Rak (1912-1997), whose account History of [the] Korean Anarchist Movement (Anarchist Publishing Committee, Korean Anarchist Federation, Taegu, Korea, 1986), drew heavily on the reminiscences and works of survivors of the Commune such as Lee Eul Kyu (1894-1972), the "Korean Kropotkin". Unfortunately, Ha's work is poorly structured, meanwhile in academia, the subject of the Commune is either airbrushed out of history or deliberately distorted by communist and nationalist historians. So we owe Crisi a huge debt for his detective work in piecing together the core elements of the "Forgotten Revolution" from a range of hostile sources, both bourgeois and Stalinist.
Thanks to Crisi's work, historians of the anarchist movement which dominated organised labour in the developing world from the 1870s to the 1920s now have more solid ground on which to do further research. For instance, what were relations like between the Commune and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast across the Amur River in the USSR, given that although the Bolsheviks suppressed the Maritime Provinces anarchists in the mid-1920s, there were significant numbers of anarchists among the Jews? What were the actual structures and lines of operation of, and interactions between, the Korean Anarchist Federation (KAF), Korean Anarchist Communist Federation (KACF), Revolutionists League and other organs such as the Korean Provisional Government and the Korean People's Association in Manchuria (KPAM)? How did the KPAM differ in nature in cities like Harbin, from its presence in the agrarian communes on the river plains, or in isolated forest, mountain or swampland hamlets?
A key question relates to the impact of the Commune on Korean anarchist praxis: whether the later wartime Korean anarchist movement indeed perverted and abandoned its ideals when KACF leading light and Commune veteran Yu Rim (1898-1961) entered the powerless Korean Provisional Government in Exile in 1941, then subsequently in 1946 unified the ex-KACF, ex-KACF and syndicalist movements under the aegis of the electoralist Independent Workers' and Peasants' Party (IWPP) - or whether this "auto-governmentist" majority tendency in fact aimed at recreating the KACF's and KACF's glorious past experiences in the administration of the Black River Commune?
The fact that a parliamentary tendency arose out of the ex-IWPP in the 1970s including the likes of Ha Ki-Rak in the increasingly dictatorial conditions of South Korea (the movement was destroyed in the North) does not mean that we can read the IWPP of 1946-1961 retroactively as what I'd call libertarian reformist. The ideological and strategic difference between a libertarian socialist "administration of things" in which the common people determine their destiny, as was manifested under the Black River Commune, and a conventional statist government, by which the common people are subordinated to an elite which extracts profit from them, is key. This question remains the most controversial aspect of the post-war Korean anarchist movement - but although it is beyond Crisi's scope, it demonstrates how far-reaching the implications of his research could be.
With his crucial maps, Crisi locates the Commune in its proper geo-strategic context, and with his text, he has illuminated the fact that far from the Commune originating in a weird top-down imposition of libertarian socialism under General Kim Jwa-Jin's Northern Division of the Korean Independence Army, anarchist militants spent eight months walking the villages and fields of the Shinmin (New Popular Society) district to hear the peasants' views and promote their ideas of self-managed life - before the multiparty agreement to establish the Commune.
Here is a movement that honourably fought an uninterrupted anti-imperialist war from 1910 to 1945 (even rescuing downed Allied airmen during WWII), that worked without any apparent prejudice alongside Chinese, Manchurian and even Japanese workers and militants, that had very clear strategic objectives yet was non-dogmatic enough to build a de facto Makhnovist-like multiparty movement that liberated a huge territory and embarked on years of pragmatic self-managed constructive work, and which arguably maintained those ideals under the very dire circumstances of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula in organisational form until at least the mid-1970s as the Autonomous Village Movement which had been founded by the old KAF and the syndicalists in 1945.
Here is a movement deserving of restoration to its historic central role within the Korean liberation movement, to its core place in the revolutionary canon of the anarchist movement, and to its credit in the 20th Century revolutionary gymnastics of Far East Asia more broadly. Crisi's text is not only of value for students of anarchist and syndicalist movements and milieus, but of anti-imperialism, of guerrilla warfare, of interbellum Far East Asia, and even of the emergence today of anti-statist, decentralist socialist revolution in places such as Rojava (Western Kurdistan). It enables us for the first time to make a start on proper comparative analyses with those better-studied anarchist Revolutions in Ukraine and Spain - and urges us to examine the equally obscured Guangzhou Commune with urgency, let alone the more ephemeral anarchist attempts at decentralising power in Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay and elsewhere.
Because of the stranglehold the current red fascist dictatorships have on state archives and free inquiry, we don't yet have the desired level of access to Chinese and North Korean primary documentation of the relevant period in Manchuria and its borderlands (while the author himself has noted with concern the highly unlikely absence of women anarchists in the narratives of his own sources). Although the definitive study of the Manchurian Revolution has yet to be written, with this carefully considered volume, Crisi has given us the first real tools to embark on that immense task.

Michael Schmidt, co-author of Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, USA, 2009), Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism (AK Press, USA, 2013), and Korean Anarchism Armed: the Anarcho-Communist Mass Line Part 4 (forthcoming).

Wednesday 9 September 2015

A Map Towards Revolution: An Interview with Michael Schmidt

A Map Towards Revolution: An Interview with Michael Schmidt, Imminent Rebellion No.13, P. 56-64, Rebel Press, Wellington, New Zealand, 2014: Imminent Rebellion 13

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Unequal Siamese Twins: A review of Felipe Fernández-Armesto's The Americas: The History of a Hemisphere

In a world of specialists, generalists are usually underappreciated and histories of entire continents are a rarity, but fortunately that is starting to change with the decline of narrow nationalistic histories in favour of advances in transnational studies, as well as the current fad of sweeping histories-of-everything swabbed on big canvasses. That is not to say that Fernández-Armesto does a shoddy job: on the contrary, his tale of the reversal of the magnetic pole of fortune that defined success in the Americas since the precolonial era, though it does have the world-weariness of the veteran historian tired of debunking myths, is nevertheless told with the pace and spicing of the raconteur fully at home with his topic.
He does end on a rather wistful note – that people tend to believe in historical myths that by sheer virtue of their propagation gain the weight of truth, rather than in historical truths – but he has adjusted some of my preconceptions and shattered several of my prejudices regarding the uneven state of development across the continent. Or is it continents? – And that is where he begins, with an exploration about whether there are truly two Americas or rather one, concluding that for the early explorers, the New World was seen as a whole, a whole that expanded dramatically beyond their initial expectations of finding a few spice-bearing islands.
He deals with the remarkable early human settlements, particularly the two-way traffic between Asia and Alaska when the Bering Strait for some 60,000 ice-bound years offered a land bridge, and the question of the variety of environments in which this occurred, noting that until the 18th Century, the North American Great Plains were sterile vacancies, while civilisations rose in the Amazon jungle. He rushes through the human-driven extinctions of what could have been domesticable species (this was long before Chief Seattle’s famous reported words of earth-husbandry), and into the domestication of maize, squash and beans in particular, then settles down like the ancient Mezoamericans and Andeans to discuss in more detail the rise of the early city-states and empires.
Seized practically intact by Hernando Cortéz, the Aztec Empire and others like it, with a significant overlay of Iberian culture and architecture, laid the foundation for the spectacular wealth of colonial Spain and Portugal: and not just in gold and silver, for great universities were established, and women writers like the poet Sor Juana de la Cruz came to prominence in what is today Mexico in the 1500s, while Brazil’s world-influencing artists in the 1700s included slave-born blacks like Manuel da Cunha and mulattos like Aleijadhino, while North Americans languished as trappers and fishermen unconcerned with the arts. This focus on the arts is welcome as it is an often-missing element in most histories, yet gives insight into the hearts of peoples. I visited Seville in Andalusia last year, and marvelled at its palaces representing Spain’s colonial possessions: it is hard today to find traces of that pre-eminence.
I won’t spoil the read by revealing Fernández-Armesto’s key thesis on why the fortunes of the North later eclipsed those of the South, but he comes into his own discussing the similarities between the “two” Americas and is particularly revealing when tackling the racist myths of inherent Anglo-Saxon supremacy via the supposed virtues of Protestant industriousness over the supposedly indolent Catholic Latins (“Hot tempers, hot peppers and hot weather seem well-matched,” he quips sardonically). He debunks these notions by, for instance, showing that Catholicism is today the largest confession in the USA, while Protestants have more priests than Catholics in Brazil, and by noting the non-Latin heritage of much of “Latin” America – Belize, Jamaica, Bermuda and much of the Caribbean, Surinam and the Guyanas, not to mention the huge Japanese presence in Brazil, or the significant Welsh and German influences on the Argentines, or the two centuries of British dominance in Chile – and the Latinisation of much of the US South-West.
He also refreshingly overturns convention by posing North American culture as communalist (even proto-socialist in its frontier era), while posing Latin American culture as individualist (though he mistakenly includes a proclivity towards anarchism – for the first two decades of the 20th Century, the region’s leading industrial organising force – in this formula). I fear he does not tackle what fellow British historian Niall Ferguson in his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, claims is one of the defining differences between the North and the South: universal access to land-ownership by frontier farmers in the North (in dispossessing the Native Americans) meant the North was able to escape the trap of the South’s latifundistas who to this day hold most of the arable land, while the majority work it for them. But he does deal with the manner in which Native American near-extinction in the North created a huge labour hunger that drove massive European immigration into the North in the 19th Century which transformed the Great Plains into the bread basket of the world, while much of Latin America’s indigenes were retained as ranch and plantation labour and the frontier – especially the jungles, oceans and tundra – remained under-exploited.
In sum it’s a concise, very approachable – and at many points very quotable – introduction to a great and complex topic that pokes holes in many hot-air assumptions, misconceptions and deliberate distortions about this unequal, yet Siamese-twinned continent.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Argentine launch of book on the Manchurian Revolution for which I wrote the introduction

Revolución anarquista en Manchuria 1929-1932 by Emilio Crisi (Editorial Libros de Annares, Buenos Aires, 2015) for which I wrote the introduction el Levantamiento del Dragón Negro: La Olvidada Revolución en Manchuria (Black Dragon Rising: The Forgotten Revolution in Manchuria).

Compañeros/as y amigos/as!
Tengo el agrado de invitarlos a la presentación del libro "REVOLUCIÓN ANARQUISTA EN MANCHURIA (1929-1932)" Viernes 18 de Setiembre a las 18hs en la Facultad de Humanidades, Aula 7, Entre Rios 758, Rosario. 
Esta investigación, estimulada por el ITHA / IATH - Instituto de Teoria e História Anarquista, publicada recientemente por la Editora Libros de Anarres (que posibilitó que el libro llegue a las librerías) cuenta con un prólogo del investigador sudafricano Michael Schmidt.
El libro intenta desarrollar entre otros temas las dificultades historiográficas para investigar estos hechos, el contexto político, social y económico del momento, la vida de las organizaciones anarquistas coreanas y de las regiones aledañas que lograron dar vida a una revolución libertaria sin precedentes para esa zona del mundo, solo comparable quizás por su magnitud a la Revolución Social Española de 1936 o a la Makhnovtchina ucraniana de 1919. El libro además evidencia una serie de factores que intentan explicar Cómo en una zona de medio millón de campesinos -flagelada por la explotación, la dominación y la invasión de ejércitos coloniales- se lograron ensayar organismos administrativos federalistas antagónicos a un nuevo Estado a la vez que se producían avances técnicos en procesos rurales de autogestión. Estos y otros puntos podremos compartir y debatir en la presentación del mismo.
Este libro es un humilde homenaje a aquella generación de anarquistas coreanos que pusieron su vida en pos de un proyecto emancipación social: Kim Jong-jin, Kim Jwa-jin, Lee Eul-kyu, Lee Jung-kyu, Lee Hwae-young y Yu Rim, entre otros...
Quedais invitados a compartir este evento junto a la Federación Anarquista de Rosario.

Proposed cover for A Taste of Bitter Almonds

My favourite concept image (of the three concepts presented to me) for the front cover of my new book, A Taste of Bitter Almonds. Perdition and Promise in the New South Africa (BestRed, Cape Town, due November 2015). The woman with the apple is one of my ancestors, Bengali-French freed slave Anna de Koning, and the kids in the foreground are from the Gwiji family in the Eastern Cape, standing on the ruins of their former family farmhouse - bulldozed by apartheid in 1953 - at a ceremony at which their farm Blydefontein was returned to them in 2001. My draft back-cover blurb reads: "When Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president in 1994, it symbolised the triumphal defeat of almost three and a half centuries of racial separation since Dutch East India Company traders planted a bitter almond hedge to keep indigenous people out of ‘their’ Cape outpost in 1659. The Mandela moment had deep global resonance and for a few years thereafter the “Rainbow Nation” was the world’s darling – but in the world’s most unequal society, for the majority of its people, being excluded from a dignified life remained the rule over 1994 to 2015, and a taste of bitter almonds remained. In the year of South Africa’s troubled coming-of-age, veteran investigative journalist and anarchist activist Michael Schmidt brings to bear 21 years of his scribbled field notes to weave a tapestry of the view from below: here in the demi-monde of our transition from autocracy to democracy, in the half-light glow of the rusted rainbow, you will meet neo-Nazis and the newly dispossessed, Boers and Bushmen, black illegal coal miners and a bank robber, witches and wastrels, love children and land claimants. Yet, with their feet in the mud, still our Born Free youth have their eyes on the stars."