Monday 30 May 2016

Condor declared a supranational criminal association

In a victory for the memory of the tens of thousands murdered, last Friday, an Argentine court established that the US-backed Operation Condor death-squad operations in the cone of Latin America over 1968-1989 was in essence a supranational criminal association, and jailed former Argentine dictator Reynaldo Bignoni and 14 other military goons for crimes against humanity. Although sentences had been handed down to Condor operatives previously - Bignoni was already doing life for human rights violations committed during the junta's rule - this judgment sets an important legal precedent in the region. A self-declared blanket amnesty for the perpetrators was only overturned in 2005 - a full 22 years after the dictatorship ended in 1983. Here is a Telegraph piece on the sentencing: Telegraph on Operation Condor

Murderous generals Georg Videla, left, and Reynaldo Bignoni

In my book Drinking With Ghosts (2014), I started with a comparative analysis of the apartheid regime under PW Botha and the Chilean dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, as there as many similarities in terms of the numbers killed and their anti-communist orientation, then I ended the book asking why, when Guatemala, Argentina, Uruguay and other countries were making headway in prosecuting their murderous generals, South Africa's "miracle" democracy under Nelson Mandela had failed to do likewise. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the mid-1990s has not yet even paid compensation to victims of apartheid, and other atrocities, such as the Operation Dual murder and disappearance of some 200 Swapo POWs who were drugged and dumped in the ocean, was not even known at the time of the TRC. I theorise that a "pact of forgetting", similar to that in post-Franco Spain has kept perpetrators on both sides of the autocracy/liberation divide mum. But I predict that one day, this pact - plus the blanket amnesty self-declared for the Operation Dual war criminals - will come unravelled.
                                  Disappeared: the FAU's Alberto "Pocho" Mechoso

In the book, I particularly focus on the fate of militants and trade unionists from the 500-member Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (FAU), founded 50 years ago in 1956, which established a 400,000-strong National Convention of Workers (CNT), a 10,000-strong Student Worker Resistance (ROE) front, and its own armed wing of 100 guerrillas, the Revolutionary Popular Organisation - 33 Orientals (OPR-33). I wrote about the identification and reburial of the bones of FAU veteran Juan Carlos Mechoso's brother Alberto "Pocho" Mechoso, also of the FAU, in 2012. One of those convicted on Friday was Uruguayan army Colonel Manuel Cordero Piacentini, who was a torturer at the infamous "black prison" of Orletti Motors in Buenos Aires. It was there that FAU/CNT syndicalist leaders such as Gerardo Gatti who had fled the Uruguayan dictatorship were tortured then murdered and "disappeared". 

                              A tortured Gerardo Gatti in his cot at Orletti Motors

Patrice J McSherry, author of the definitive account in English of Operation Condor, Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America (2005), in his article Death squads as parallel forces: Uruguay, Operation Condor, and the United States (2007), described the abduction of Mechoso and another comrade from the FAU-founded Party for the Victory of the People (PVP): “In the September 1976 wave of disappearances, the OCOA grupo de tareas [an Uruguayan death-squad], operating with Argentine commandos from SIDE [an intelligence agency], abducted PVP members Adalberto Soba and Alberto Mechoso in Argentina. The Condor commando seized them in a café. Later the commando surrounded Soba’s house and detained his wife and three children. They were taken to Orletti, where the family was put in a room. There they could hear the screams of the tortured and the sounds of the street outside. The oldest child, Sandro, was eight, and he related the experience in August 2006 at a trial in Uruguay on this case. Eventually [Col José] Gavazzo allowed them to see his father, he said. His father was nude, wet, and bound. His eyes were white, swollen with pus from electric torture, and he could barely speak, but he told his son to take care of his mother. Sandro’s father was never seen again." Many FAU/PVP members including popular school-teacher Elena Quinteros were likewise "disappeared". I will relate the story of the FAU's birth, growth, combat, suppression, and revival in Uruguayan Anarchism Armed, which is due out later this year.

Disappeared: the FAU's Elena Quinteros

Saturday 21 May 2016

Jelesko ‘Jack’ Grancharoff (July 5, 1925 – May 15, 2016)

It is with sadness that I learned today that Jack Grancharoff, a veteran Bulgarian anarchist living in Quaama, New South Wales, Australia, had died last Sunday. Jack grew up as a shepherd-boy in Bulgaria, a country that had a powerful anarchist movement, the third-largest movement on the left after the agrarians and the communists, a movement that threw itself into the Macedonian liberation struggle against the Ottoman Empire in 1903, some 60 anarchists giving their lives in that cause, then organising the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation (FAKB) in 1919 which fought against two fascist coups, in 1923 and in 1934, before going underground to fight against the Nazis during World War II. It is partly because of the widespread penetration of anarchist sentiment in Bulgaria - officially an ally of Berlin - that Bulgaria's 48,000 Jews were actively prevented from being railed to the Nazi death camps.

The movement emerged in strength after the war but was suppressed in 1948 by a cynical "Fatherland Front" regime composed of Soviet-backed communists, agrarians and the '34 fascists, with thousands of anarchists thrown into concentration camps such as Cuciyan (near Pernik, called by its inmates the "Caresses of Death"), Bogdanovol-Dol (called the "Camp of Shadows), Nojarevo, Tadorovo and Bosna. It was in these camps that a young Grancharoff, formerly an Agrarian Party activist, incarcerated as an "enemy of the state" came into contact with the anarchist movement. Many Bulgarian anarchists including FAKB veterans fled into exile in France where they established the Bulgarian Libertarian Union (ULB) that survived for 30 years until 1978 - but which seeded the establishment of the Bulgarian Anarchist Federation (FAB) in 1989 and of the anarcho-syndicalist Bulgarian Confederation of Labour (BKT) in 1991. 

Other exiles settled in Australia, Grancharoff arriving in 1952, and establishing a Bulgarian anarchist group in Sydney that published a paper in Bulgarian that was distributed abroad. Grancharoff was an indefatigable public speaker in the cause of anarchism, and in 1965 (the year that an exile Spanish CNT sub-delegation was established in Australia), he was instrumental in starting the irregular journal Red & Black which was to publish for at least the next 30 years (I'm not sure when the last edition came out), establishing himself as one of the key proponents of anarchism in Australia. In 2006, Grancharoff was kind enough to write for me a synopsis called The Bulgarian Anarchist Movement, which provided much of the connecting tissue for what became my booklet Bulgarian Anarchism Armed (2008). I was fortunate enough to finally meet Grancharoff in 2014 after delivering a talk at the Victoria Trades Hall in Melbourne. Hamba kahle, Jack! 

Jack Grancharoff speaking at The Domain in Sydney in the 1950s (top) and in 1975 (below).

An Australian obituary of Jack Grancharoff is at: Jack Grancharoff obituaryMore writings on and interviews with Grancharoff are available here: Jack Grancharoff interviews.

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.

Monday 16 May 2016

Toppling Western Explorer Heroes

A Review of Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World

There have been many attempts in recent years to totally overhaul the conventional history of the world as it is usually taught, with the flakiest elements asserting whack-job theories such as that the human race was seeded by aliens as a slave-class for a since-lost primordial civilisation. Much of this tendency has been driven by the authors’ own anti-empirical search for novelty and notoriety, so personally I’d take the observations of a scientist like Thor Heyerdahl over a barber like Erich von Däniken any day.

However, some new overarching histories are so compellingly and rationally argued that their core theses look set to overturn conventional knowledge in the field. And nothing quite comes as close to upsetting the apple cart as Gavin Menzies’ magisterial 1421. 
That imperial China, after a spurt of unprecedented exploration in 1421-1423 under visionary third Ming emperor Zhu Di, embarked on a centuries-long policy of isolation that was ultimately responsible for the stagnation of Chinese science and innovation is well known. 

But what has until Menzies not been comprehensively explored was the astounding extent of the peregrinations of the great treasure fleets under Zhu’s eunuch Muslim admirals. That they traded with the Spice Islands of what is today Indonesia and traversed the Indian Ocean as far as India, Arabia and even Africa was pretty much accepted, what with evidence such as paintings of giraffe presented in tribute to the emperor, but it seems few historians looked at the actual potential routes of Zhu’s treasure fleets based on winds and currents, which the core of Menzies’ thesis, informed by his career as a former Royal Navy submarine commander.

The main reason for this lack was that Zhu’s isolationist successors destroyed as many records of the voyages as their agents could lay their hands on, imposed severe restrictions on “foreign” knowledge, and outlawed the construction of ocean-going vessels on pain of death, so there were strong incentives among the Chinese themselves to forget the great adventure had ever happened at all.

But Zhu’s testing of the extent of his imperial reach naturally intersected with other far-travelling-and-trading peoples, not least of whom were the Venetians and the Portuguese, the latter of whom, Menzies demonstrates, were the great beneficiaries of the Chinese fleets’ voyages, so there existed other accounts of those explorations written by people other than the Chinese.

The strange thing is that for a long time it was known in specialised nautical circles and by collectors of antique maps that there was firm cartographic evidence of navigators’ detailed knowledge of the passages through Tierra del Fuego and the Philippines long before Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) and of the coast of Australia long before Thomas Cook. These maps that predated the celebrated European explorers of the Pacific were among the most valuable, secret and guarded possessions of the seafaring nations that built their empires based on this insider knowledge, especially the Portuguese, Spanish and British.

Prior to Menzies, the wildest theories were circulated about these seemingly impossible maps, nautical charts that appeared to have been dropped through a worm-hole in time, describing continents and islands at latitudes and longitudes supposedly unknown to “civilised” folk at that time. One of the most famous is the Kangnido World Map, created in Korea in 1402 and depicting Europe, Asia – and a reasonably accurate coastline of Africa (when corrected for longitude by Menzies), a full 95 years before Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. 

Detailing how Ming Chinese navigation techniques evolved, especially for moving south of the equator in the absence of the guiding star Polaris (using Canopus as a substitute), Menzies claims that after the great treasure armada under Admiral Zheng He reached Africa, two fleets under Admiral Hong Bao and Admiral Zhou Man split off and traveled down the coast from Mogadishu to Sofala and then, following the prevailing winds and currents, rounded the Cape and hugged the West African coast as far north as Cape Verde. He presents evidence of multilingual stone stele carved by the Chinese as diplomatic proclamations found in Ceylon, and, he argues, also in Congo and Cape Verde.

From there, Menzies theorises, the fleets of Hong Bao and Zhou Man used the currents to cross the Atlantic to the Brazilian coast, making landfall near the mouth of the Orinoco River, 70 years before Christoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) made landfall in The Bahamas in 1492. 

The honour of being the first to “discover” a hemispheric continent with millions of inhabitants has long been contested: the Icelandic Sagas and archeological evidence show that Viking Leif Erikson was probably the first European to set foot on American soil, and probably established the first permanent settlement there, in Newfoundland, in the year 1000; while a 14th Century Egyptian book by Al Umari tells that a fleet under Malian king Mansa Abubakari II made landfall at Recife, Brazil, in 1312 – which would mean Africans “discovered” the Americas 110 years before the Chinese. 

After travelling down to Patagonia – mapping its coastline and the Strait of Magellan through Tierra del Fuego 98 years before Magellan – Menzies states that the fleets parted ways, with Hong Bao’s ships mapping the pack ice down to the South Shetland Islands just off Antarctica’s Trinity Peninsula, then tracking back eastwards at those latitudes via the Kerguelen Islands in the far south Indian Ocean to the west coast of Australia, while Zhou Man traveled up the Chilean coast as far north as the Galapagos Islands, then traversed the Pacific on the equatorial current, to map the east coast of Australia and the west coast of New Zealand. 

After charting Australia, the fleets returned to China via Sumatra (Hong Bao) and the Spice Islands (Zhou Man) – but not before, Menzies argues, Zhou Man’s fleet crossed the Pacific again, this time headed eastwards from the Philippines, making landfall in California 118 years before the first European to do so, Hernando de Alarcón, in 1540, then sending smaller fleets to seed settlements all down the coast from the Sacramento River valley to Mexico and Peru.

At this point I feel it will be spoiling the plot to discuss the Caribbean, Central American and North American voyages – and the establishment of colonies there – by Chinese fleets, not to mention their claimed expedition around Greenland in search of the North Pole. 

Suffice to say that although Menzies is not a specialist in many of the disciplines he taps into, his evidence was accumulated over 15 years of research from a grand synthesis of interpreting not only navigation, cartography and the diaries of explorers, but of linguistics, DNA genetic mapping, of the archaeology of strange junk-like wrecks and of Chinese artefacts in unlikely places, and of the strange dispersal of fauna and flora in parts of the world where they were not to be expected, such as the uniquely American-derived corn found growing in the Philippines by Magellan.

Given that Menzies’ magnum opus was first published in 2002, it is a mark of the resistance of the academy to such radical notions that 14 years later, his work appears to still be waiting in the wings to make its mark on many serious history curricula where Magellan and Cook remain untoppled in their “discoverer” status despite the known fact that they found their way to “unknown” lands guided by earlier maps. 

In the age of exploration, there was a valid reason for disguising this fact: I’m guessing that the knowledge that the Chinese had charted the world in detail decades before the Europeans was one of the most valuable state secrets, holding the keys as it did to controlling extremely valuable trade routes. But in the new Millennium, it strikes me as racist that the proven aspects of Menzies’ thesis have not received wider academic admission; perhaps this is driven by the rise of Sinophobia in the West as China awakens, but a cautious yet evidence-based far-reaching overhaul of what we know about the age of exploration is long overdue.

Friday 6 May 2016

Anarchist Lineages

One of the key problems with conventional anarchist histories is that they tend to end with the defeat of the Spanish Revolution in 1939 - yet this is a very Eurocentric view, for though World War II dealt a real hammer-blow to the anarchist movements in Europe, with the SAC in neutral Sweden being the only significant organisation to survive unscathed, the movements in Latin America and the Far East in particular were barely affected by the war. 
Sure, they had their own problems - the Americans were mostly organising underground in a period of dictatorship, while the Asians had their own battles against warlords and Japanese imperialism that predated the war - but their organisations were virile, combative and not crushed by these circumstances. So, many organisational and ideological lineages continued through the war years into the Cold War era and I dedicated myself to detailing these linkages. 
One of the most significant anarchist movements was the Korean, which arose in 1910 with the Japanese invasion of the Korean peninsula. In 1919, during a wave of unrest that swept across East and Southeast Asia, the first significant organisation, the Band of Heroes, was founded, seeding a lineage that saw the establishment in 1924 of the Korean Anarchist Federation (KAF) and what became the Korean Revolutionist Federation (KRF), and of numerous "black societies" - anarchist resistance cells - seven of which in 1929 formed the Korean Anarchist Communist Federation (KACF). 
The KAF and KACF launched the Manchurian Revolution over 1929-1932, so they and their legacy are important to understand. Yesterday I sketched the lineages of these three organisations, down to the 2000s (notepad image above), which I formalised in a PowerPoint diagramme (image below). 
I will do the same for all the organisations represented in my Anarchist-Communist Mass Line series (the Bulgarian, Uruguayan, and Ukrainian movements) and will add other significant lineages such as the French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Chilean, Argentine, Cuban and Mexican. I will then get a designer to produce professional graphics of these lineages and include them in future editions of Mass Line, Cartography, and Wildfire.

Yom Hashoah, Johannesburg, 5 May 2016

I thought her voice would falter. I thought she would dissolve in tears. But the wavering in her throat, no doubt underscored by an unimaginable night-train of emotion and by the burden of her advanced years, never broke. Her face may have been pale as a shin-bone in moonlight, but her message rang clear.
“I saw things no man should see. I saw children murdered by educated doctors. I saw babies killed by nurses. I saw young people shot by high school and university graduates… so I am suspicious of education. Yes, it is important to learn literature and maths, but we need to make sure that our children learn humanity too.”
The elderly Hungarian lady with the ivory skin who was among the 60,000 forcibly removed by cattle-car train to death camps under the Nazi regime was speaking to thousands gathered in the moderate blaze of an autumnal African sun under the Martyrs Monument’s giant sculpted shofars, the ram’s horn bugle that rings out during Rosh Hashanah; clenched in bronzed resolution, the defiance of the sculpture recalled the perhaps 30,000 Jews who actively resisted the Nazi “Great Devouring” – to borrow from the Romani – as defiant partisans of all humanity against annihilation.
In echo of the résistants’ ingrained human response to atrocity, a chubby old man crowned with wisps of silver hair and squeezed into a coal-black suit sang The Partisan Song: “Geshrieben is dos lied mit bloot oon nit mit blaai / Es iz nit cane liedfoon a failgel oif der fraai / Dos hot a fold tsuvishen fallendike vent / Dos lied gezungen mit naganes in die hent.” (“For when we wrote this song with blood and not with lead / When we lived not with the living but with the dead / And we sang this song behind the ghetto walls / when we cried for help, and no-one heard our calls.”)
It was too late for many but the calls resonated internationally: at the memorial, the Afrikaans inscription about the “onmenslikheid” – inhumanity – of the era was most easily readable to me on the marble plinth where Hungarian survivor Veronica Phillips told of how her schoolgirl days – already blighted by teachers who had declined to recognise her academic achievements because she was a Jew (“Jews are rats” appeared on chalked her classroom blackboard) were inexorably eclipsed when her family was removed from its safe-house by Arrow Cross fascists who tore up their Swiss-issued passports and split her family forever. 
Finally by sheer luck, she was plucked from an SS-supervised queue at the very doors of the gas chambers at Ravensbruck because she spoke German, to serve as slave labour in an aircraft factory near Dresden, where she witnessed the Allies’ own genocidal fire-bombing of the city.
And yet here she stands before us.
She was a child then, so never a partisan.
Yet here she stands as a vital challenge to our humanity. 
A schoolgirl of today stands in the sun and intones a resonant song in Hebrew, alternating with English: "Everyone has a name / given to him by the mountains / and given to him by the walls / Everyone has a name / given to him by the stars / and given to him by his neighbours / Everyone has a name / given to him by his sins / and given to him by his longing / Everyone has a name / given to him by his enemies / and given to him by his love..."
Another young girl provides what I think is the appropriate coda by reciting a poem, The Cheerful Pessimist, a defiantly up-beat text written in a concentration camp by one of the six million who did not survive. It ends: "Long live joy!"

Sunday 1 May 2016

Don't Mourn - Organise!

Remember the anarchist martyrs of 1886 after whom we commemorate International Workers' Day! With the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) marking 1,189 journalists killed since 1992 and with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noting "a climate of fear and tension combined with increasing control over newsrooms by governments and private-sector interests," the slogan "Don't Mourn - Organise!" - drawn from the final letter of militant song-writer Joe Hill of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to labour organiser Big Bill Haywood just prior to his 1915 execution in a statist frame-up - has never been more relevant.

I worked as a shop steward in the old South African Union of Journalists (SAUJ) for a decade, over 1993-2003, then in 2010, with the SAUJ five years defunct, after two years of very wide consultation and preparation, I launched the Professional Journalists' Association of South Africa (ProJourn), to defend the rights, and improve the working conditions and safety of working journalists, to uplift journalists from previously disadvantaged communities, and to maintain high journalistic standards, and protect our democracy. ProJourn was founded on an anarchist constitution as a directly-democratic worker-driven organisation and represented the country's newsrooms before the Press Freedom Commission. Today, six years after its founding, ProJourn has more than 4,000 supporters of all colours as shown by its FB Page and Group, it provides members with Press Cards and discounted training, represents journalists' interests to government and the media industry in the Alliance of Language & Media Practitioners (LAMP), and runs The Ulu Club for Southern African Conflict Journalists, and the South African Cities of Refuge Project.