Thursday 30 November 2017

Radio Freedom's First Recording

When I was a teenager during apartheid, I used to lie awake late at night with my shortwave radio secretly tuned into a forbidden station - the ANC's Radio Freedom. The broadcasts, coming from transmitters in Lusaka, and even further afield evoked an exotically different Africa to the one I lived in, and each episode started with the announcement "This is the African National Congress. This is the African National Congress. This is the Voice of Freedom. The ANC speaks to you! Afrika! Afrika! Mayibuye!" followed by the clatter of an AK47 being fired. It was all clandestine good fun - rewired a decade later in 1991 - the year of the unbanning of the ANC and other South African liberation movements - in the introduction to KLF's hit 3am Eternal on YouTube here. An essay on the historical Radio Freedom is here.

Roll forward another two decades and another African country was caught up in a seemingly endless liberation struggle - Zimbabwe in its Second Chimurenga, this time against a liberation movement turned post-colonial predator. In 2014 I was approached by a lean and hungry young Zimbabwean, Taurai Mabhachi - hungry in both the physical and political senses - who headed a Harare-based NGO. Together, we embarked on a project to get community radio stations - of which Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe had zero - licensed and on air. Although our project was aimed at getting *all* vernacular-language and community-of-interest stations on air, Taurai's Radio Freedom is specifically targeted at a youth audience. Today, after years of going through a maze of potential funders and potential partners - Radio Freedom finally had its first recording session, a podcast hosted by Taurai and myself. 

And thanks to the November 15-21 2017 military coup d'etat that ousted Mugabe - what I have termed the "Continuity Coup" as it reinforces ZANU-PF securocrat rule - the topic of our pilot show was "Democracy & Diversity in light of the Zimbabwean Coup". Our guests included left academic Prof Patrick Bond, veteran former BBC journalist Andy Moyse, former bank treasurer Daniel Ngwira and former Revolutionary Command Council student Dandira Mushangai. We had a few tech issues, but once it has been edited, if it is of broadcast quality, I'll post a link to the podcast - and that will hopefully be the first in a series of ten Radio Freedom podcasts leading up to the mid-2018 Zimbabwean Elections, and a precursor to a more formal, trained cadre of Radio Freedom hosts and field corespondents reporting on the challenges of democratising Zimbabwe. Free the Zim Airwaves Now!


Saturday 25 November 2017

Anarchist Portrait & Interview Series

This column for Zabalaza: a Journal of Southern African Revolutionary Anarchism from way back in June 2003 was supposed to be the first in a series of vignette interviews with anarchist militants for which I began shooting a couple of black-and-white portraits. I guess it was intended as a portrait-and-text collection inspired by Paul Avrich's Anarchist Voices, Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA, 1995. The powerful and compelling idea for verbatim interviews - allowing people to speak uninterrupted in their own voice without the journalist's interruptions or interpretations - is largely drawn from oral historians like Tony Parker (May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast, Jonathan Cape, London, UK, 1993) and Studs Terkel (The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream, Pantheon Books New York City, USA, 1988). Although this was the only column actually published - and then without the picture - the idea somewhat morphed into my portrait-film-and-text project The People Armed: Anarchist Fighters Verbatim in which I interview anarchist armed struggle veterans from around the world. Leny and Martin kindly acted as my interpreters during Jornadas Anarquistas in Porto Alegre, Brazil. I am honoured that today, I still count as friends and comrades all the people portrayed here.

Leny Olivera, Bolivia © Michael Schmidt 2003

Latin American Voices
(Tinku Youth, Network of Autonomous
Groups, Cochabamba, Bolivia)
Speaking during the Anarchist Days 2
meeting at Porto Alegre, Brazil, 27
January 2003.

I identify as Quechua because my father
speaks Quechua [one of Bolivia's three
major indigenous languages]. I work in a
cultural group, but it's not just cultural: we
also work with social topics. I like to work
there because in our group we do a variety
of things: we work in ecology; problems in
our society; the music that revitalises our
culture. I continue working there because I
think it should be very integral, because at
school I never learned why poverty exists in
all the world, why some people don't have
anything to eat, and many things about our
culture. I think I learned more things on the
streets in my group than at school or worse,
the university. Now I'm studying through a
university but don't think that the things that
I learn - it's simple, technical things - it's useful,
but it's just technical things. It was disappointing
for me because there is no social
consciousness to help our society according
to our career.
I study computer science and it's just
like a tool for me. And other aspects like
social consciousness and other things I
learn in the streets, on marches and going to
the communities - because we also play
music from our communities and we are
learning little by little more things to remember.
And, well, about anarchism, what I
understood about it was that, first in Bolivia
this word is like a mess, it's a bad word in
some of the countries. But for me it's excellent
- but I see also that it's difficult. I couldn't
see a person that was anarchist 100%.
It's difficult to take out all of the structures
that we have in our minds, but it's a good
step to recognise that we have to take it out.
I think it's an important thing, but the problem
is that since we are at school, and they
put in our minds a lot of structures, a way of
thinking with this global system.
It's very terrible; that's why I say that I'm
in the process of destroying those structures.
I believe in anarchism, but I am trying
to be [anarchist] because I should change
more and I'm conscious that I have more
structures [to destroy]. I also see that I have
changed in some aspects too. We don't
have many contacts in Bolivia with groups
that are anarchist so we are just like the little
ones that speak loud about it because it's
about all of us as I told you. The ones that
say they are anarchist, they are also for
example macho; the men have something
that should change more. It's difficult to say
I'm anarchist because it should change
more. So for me it's like this and that is a
good option because we are accustomed to
be guided by someone, to just do what
someone says and we're not free. For
example in Bolivia most of the people think
there should just be leaders to change
something. I think that all of us can do it; it's
more powerful that everyone can act
because all of us can do it. So, we are working
on that but I think it's a process.

 Martin Dalto, Uruguay © Michael Schmidt 2003

Laua Cibelli, Argentina © Michael Schmidt 2003


Thursday 23 November 2017

Bakunin's Women

Bakunin’s Women: a Review of Mark Leier, Bakunin: The Creative Passion, Thomas Dunn Books, New York City, USA (2006)
- Michael Schmidt, South Africa (2017). This is an lengthened version of my original 2012 article.

As choking cement dust settled over Manhattan in the wake of 9/11, journalists pawing through the wreckage of history for a precedent came across the almost forgotten bombing of Wall Street by Lettish members of the Anarchist Black Cross in 1920 that killed 38 people and injured scores others. It had been an era in which anarchism wore the mantle of most feared sect to the propertied classes (Interpol had its roots in international summits in Rome and St Petersburg in the 1890s to combat anarchism, and an anarchist loner had assassinated US President William McKinley in 1901), the master of disaster was presumed to be long-dead anarchist barricades fighter and counter-Marx polemicist Mikhail Bakunin. 

Bakunin's tumultuous life, often on the run, often in the firing line, had the effect of both increasing his dangerous aura and the influence of his emergent anarcho-communist ideas on the trade unions of the First International – but also fragmenting his writings and so allowing for many distortions by his enemies. With lively prose balanced by a judicious and ultimately fair assessment of Bakunin's life and ideas, his flaws and often fruitful engagements with Marx, Leier has produced the most accessible life yet of this giant figure of 19th Century socialism. 

Bakunin's influence was mass-organisational: the splintering of the International in 1872 saw a tiny Marxist rump of perhaps 1,000 activists scattered internationally totally overshadowed by an enormous anarchist majority (sections in Spain boasted 60,000 members by 1873, and in Italy 30,000 members by 1874), which strength was replicated by further growth under the anarchist IWA's successor Anti-Authoritarian "Black" International, founded in 1881 by Bakunin’s successor, Piotr Kropotkin (sections in Mexico boasted 50,000 members by 1882, and in Holland 188,700 members by 1895 – the year in which the famous French CGT merged with the Bourses du Travail to establish a model that would be replicated as far afield as Senegal and Brazil). 

Mikhail Bakunin “reappeared as a bogeyman after September 11,” as Mark Leier puts it, because the 1920 bombing of Wall Street by the Galleanist anarchist Mario Buda which left thirty dead, 200 injured, demolished the magnate J.P. Morgan's office, and caused $2-million in property damage was the worst prior terror attack in New York, “but his casting as the grandfather of terrorism was an exercise of mystification rather than explanation.”

Bakunin’s towering intellect has always been reduced to caricature of his supposedly chaotic nature. It speaks volumes about the proletarian threat that Bakunin’s ideas posed to power that unlike Marxism, with its state-sponsored press and comfortable academic sinecures, that his complete writings only became available in 2000 thanks to the International Institute of Social History’s multilingual CD-ROM Bakounine: Ouvres complètes.

Given that Leier’s timely biography was published several years ago – part of a wave of new anarchist movement studies emanating from Canada, not least focused on what was perhaps the highest expression of “real, existing anarchism,” the Makhnovist Ukraine – I am not going to attempt a complete review, but rather focus on a key area in the formulation of Bakunin’s thought: the women in his life.

While clearly sympathetic to Bakunin as protagonist, Leier treats fairly with his not very likeable primary antagonist, Karl Marx, to whom all his turbulent life, Bakunin acknowledged a huge debt: Marx “advanced and proved the incontrovertible truth, confirmed by the entire past and present of human society, nations, and states, that economic fact has always preceded legal and political right. The exposition and demonstration of that truth constitutes one of Marx’s principle contributions to science.” Leier also has sympathies for libertarian strains of Marxism, concluding the book by saying that “with the main protagonists now long dead, it may be possible to consider the similarities [between anarchism and Marxism] and find ways to pose the differences as a progressive, dynamic, and creative tension as we confront the problems of the twenty-first century.” 

Lively, accessible and judicious, in essence, Leier’s work is a crucial restoration of Bakunin the thinker, who always tested his theories against the barricades in a manner anathema to the reclusive Marx. What emerges is a long progression from an idealistic pan-Slavism to a rigorously materialist anarchist-collectivism, Bakunin’s evolving praxis continually tested in the fires of revolt and reaction. And the clarity of his thought is revealed to be penetrating, even today. Take for example his comment on speculative capital: “speculation and exploitation undoubtedly constitute a sort of work, but work that is entirely unproductive. By this reckoning, thieves and kings work as well.”

But I want to focus briefly on a group that Leier shows to have been formative in the shaping of that intellect, the women who surrounded him in youth: his sisters Liubov, Varvara, Tatiana and Alexandra, and their friends, the Beyer sisters, Alexandra and Natalie. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Russian academy of the 1830s where philosophy was outlawed because it rejected received wisdom, the creation of reading circles by the most progressive students proved a crucial first step in creating a new post-Decembrist generation of Russian militants. “The two most important circles were one headed and named after Nicholas Stankevich and another jointly by Alexander Herzen and Nicholas Ogarev. Almost exclusively male, the Stankevich circle and the Herzen-Ogarev circle became centres for avant-garde thought in literature, philosophy and politics."

Varvara Bakunin

“According to Herzen and the many historians who have accepted his memoirs uncritically, the circles sprang up spontaneously. More careful historians, however, have noted that they owed much to the sophisticated discussion groups of the Bakunin and Beyer sisters. One reason Bakunin loved his sisters was the intellectual equality they shared, and they proved able sparring partners as he thought and rethought his own philosophy.” The older sisters, Liubov and Varvara, “were more conscious rebels” than their brother and the Bakunin-Beyer circle, properly called, created “the first spaces for provocative discussion” among the new generation that would eventually flower into the nihilist, narodnik, Essaire, maximalist, Marxist, and anarchist strands that would play such key roles in challenging and finally overthrowing the power of the Tsar. Curiously, it was above all the narodniks, whose quasi-anarchist philosophy of “going to the people” that drew an unprecedented number of women into their ranks.

Tragically constrained by the gendered confines of Russian society, Liubov Bakunin died of tuberculosis in 1838, and it was only Varvara who to some extent lived her ideals, following her brother Mikhail abroad and mimicking his wandering, free-thinking lifestyle. But Leier’s work suggests that the Bakunin-Beyer circle and its far-reaching influences is deserving of further serious in-depth study. Certainly, his sisters’ example early confirmed Bakunin in his sexual egalitarianism: women “differing from man but not inferior to him, intelligent, industrious, and free like him, is declared his equal both in rights and in political and social functions and duties.” 

His beliefs were sorely put to the test when he allowed the love of his life, his wife Antonia, of whom he wrote to Herzen “she shares in heart and spirit all my aspirations,” to follow her heart in falling in love with and even bearing the children of fellow militant Carlo Gambuzzi. Perhaps because of this generosity of spirit, Antonia Bakunin “with no prospect of a comfortable or easy life… would stay with the errant anarchist until his death.”

Antonia and Mikhail Bakunin, 1861

After the suppression of anarchism in Russia by Marx’s ideological heirs, it was another woman, the indomitable historian Natalia Mikhailovna Pirumova (1923-1997), who rescued much of the works of Bakunin and Kropotkin from obscurity, and whose brave and tireless work in doing so is credited with the revival of the Russian anarchist/syndicalist movement from 1979. By 1962, Pirumova was working for the USSR History Institute and had already scandalised Soviet academia with her work on Bakunin and Kropotkin in the historical journal Prometey. 

By 1966, she had gathered sufficient material to publish a book on Bakunin which was extended in 1970 and reprinted in the popular Life of Remarkable People series. Despite disgruntled reviews from the official press, she followed this up with a book on the life of Kropotkin in 1972. In this period, in echo of the Bakunin-Beyer circle, she gathered around her not only historians of Russia’s socialist movements, but the Vorozhdeniye (Renaissance) literary group as well as political prisoners including anarchists and socialists who had survived the gulags. A 93-year-old Essaire who attended Pirumova’s funeral in 1997 said that in Pirumova’s presence “we stopped thinking of ourselves as outcasts, forever excluded from society by Stalin”.

It is a distinct irony that when he died, Bakunin himself remained an outcast, his funeral drawing a mere 40 mourners (albeit more than Marx’s), whereas a measure of the movement he helped initiate is given by the fact that Buenaventura Durruti’s funeral, 50 years later riskily held during the aerial bombardment of Madrid, drew 500,000 mourners. In Bakunin’s very last public fray with his pen, the tired old fighter asked only that he be forgotten so that a new generation could take up the torch of liberty. 

Fortunately, while largely deprived of Bakunin’s writings, the militants who built the mass anarchist trade unions that came to dominate the organised working class of Latin America in particular – fully 50 years in Cuba, for instance, before the tiny Communist Party was founded – relied heavily on his praxis, demonstrating to our own age that a libertarian proletarian counter-power is viable and not only a pretty dream. It is for that reason that all students of mass-line liberatory politics should read Leier. 

Natalia Pirumova

* A link to the Bicentenal Conference on Bakunin 1814-2014 held at Priyamukhino, Russia, is here.


Saturday 18 November 2017

In Black & White: South African Anarchist Experiences of Apartheid.

Trawling though my writings, I came across this vignette written in 2008 for a Latin American journal concerning myself and my friend and comrade Bobo Makhoba who died a year ago (one of his obituaries is here: Bobo Makhoba obit 2016). Bobo was a remarkable human being and one that I am proud to have known, but his trajectory and mine demonstrate the continuity of racialised apartheid differentials in my society: if you are working class and classified "black", your life expectancy is much shorter than if you are lower middle class and classified "white". He was a committed militant anarchist and I miss his dynamic presence in my life.

Bobo & myself at what turned out to be a very influential party-cum-meeting in Dlamini, Soweto, in 2003.

In Black & White: South African Anarchist Experiences of Apartheid  (2008)

Michael Schmidt, a journalist and writer, was born into the comfort of a lower middle-class home in Johannesburg, and was classified white under apartheid law. He was drafted into the South African Defence Force during the Insurrection and states of emergency, which had the unintended consequence of politicising him. Exposure to the naked, murderous power of the state while in the army moved him towards anarchism which he embraced as a student in 1987 and became involved with the Durban Anarchist Federation, one of the semi-clandestine organisations whose militants went on to form the Workers’ Solidarity Federation, the forerunner of today’s Zabalaza (“Struggle”) Anarchist Communist Front. He has been instrumental in the theoretical development of southern African anarchism as well as maintaining the movement’s international relations, not least with Chile.
Schmidt met Bobo Makhoba, an itinerant electrician and soccer coach, at a 20,000-strong social movement march on the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 and together Schmidt and Makhoba were among the founders in 2003 of the ZACF. A decade younger than Schmidt, Makhoba was born into poverty in Soweto, and was classified black. He was politicised by the violent turmoil in the townships in the 1980s and had moved towards anarchism by 2002 in reaction to the ANC’s neoliberal policies. He was instrumental, as a “guerrilla electrician” in helping illegally reconnect some 25,000 houses in Soweto after the ANC-led state cut off electricity supplies in a neoliberal cost-recovery drive. 
Recalling the 1985-1990 Insurrection, the two described their widely differing experiences of violence under apartheid.
Makhoba: “I live in Dlamini, Soweto, with my mother and younger brother. In the ‘80s, things were rough here. The ANC comrades were trying to establish control over Dlamini, which had originally been a stronghold of Azapo [the socialist and black consciousness Azanian People’s Organisation]. Every morning when I went to school, I’d come across the bodies of Azapo people lying in the road who had been murdered by the ANC during the night. It was frightening. Eventually the ANC pushed Azapo out of the area completely. Even today, we struggle to get our own [anarchist] projects running in the area, because the ANC breaks everything down.”
Schmidt: “When I was doing basic training in 1985, a group of us was used as the ‘mob’ against which those training as lance-corporals would hone their riot-control skills. We pelted them with tin cans and they fired at us with blanks; orange smoke substituted for tear-gas, but we had to lie down and play dead for two minutes if we were ‘shot’. One guy took a bead on me and pulled the trigger. Lying there in the dust with the chaos of armoured vehicles and figures running through the orange smoke, I realised that if the scenario had been real and I had been black, I would have been shot dead for throwing a harmless tin can. So I resolved that if ever ordered to open fire on an unarmed person, I would instead gun down the officer who gave the command.” 
Makhoba’s activity with the ZACF subsequently lapsed, mainly because job-hunting took him all over the region, but he remains an active anarchist organiser wherever he finds himself. Schmidt served as the ZACF’s international secretary and an editor.


Wednesday 15 November 2017


© Michael Schmidt, 2016

We cannot die 
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
Your golden chalice
                                drips with malice
We stare into the sun

We speak in burning archives
Ashes drift from our mouths
They carry on 
                       the furnace winds
Away from Alexandria
Blood seeps from our wounds
Blue-shifts down Luxor’s aisles
Where jackal-prints
Mark the trepidations 
                                  of the dead

We chant long starless nights
Pleiades shudders at our drums
We were before they crawled
With feet afire
                       we walked the sand-drifts
Before they raised the stones

We recite subterranean passions
Dying flowers fall from our hair
Sauropods hear our call
Coil their necks around your masts
Drag you to abyssal gloom

We cannot die
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
Your golden calf 
                           your epitaph
We stare into the sun

Our crocodiles roil in black oil
Their eyes behold your flesh
Nephthys walks the land
Nebulae in her hand
Neither scimitar nor chisel
Shall inscribe 
                       our obsidian night
We are original before there was sin
We are what the dragons warn you of

We cannot die
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
Your nailéd godhead 
                                  faceless in a crowd
We stare into the sun

We sing cemetery dirges
With lighted hearts and scented lips
Snows fall from our brow
Their delicate mandalas 
                                       fuel tsunamis
Our arms circumscribe your fate
You rot abandoned at our gate
We are the executed in revolt
Against the delirium of the stars

We cannot die
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
The undead king 
                            our offering
We stare into the sun
The undead king 
                            our offering
We stare into the sun
The undead king 
                            our offering
We stare into the sun


Friday 10 November 2017

Anarchists in the October Revolution

In this year of celebrating the centenary of the great October Revolution in Russia, it is often forgotten that anarchists and rank-and-file Bolsheviks attempted a social revolution in July 1917 - but that the Bolshevik leadership was unprepared and so it disrupted the attempt. By doing so, the red elite was clearly signaling its willingness to risk losing the impetus of revolution entirely and so permanently surrendering the initiative to the reactionaries purely because they felt they weren't sufficiently in charge of events - a telling character flaw that would become devastatingly dominant in the subsequent Bolshevik dictatorship.

Things began to heat up in June 1917, as anarchist participants in the events Senya Fleshin and Molly Steimer later wrote: “As is known, the government of [the Social Revolutionary Alexander] Kerensky was moving quicker and quicker to the right, into the arms of the bourgeoisie and reaction. The workers responded with a protest demonstration, aimed against both the war which keeps dragging on, and against the generally treacherous policy of the right SRs. Anarchists take an active part in all of these protests; their black flags fly in the foreground. Armed, with their ranks closed, singing the anarchist anthem, they march in the streets of Petrograd."

The Bolshevik leaders warned the garrisons against taking to the streets, and yet on 3 July 1917 there was finally a rising in Petrograd, centred on revolutionary workers, soldiers and Kronstadt sailors. The immediate cause of the rising was the government’s unpopular call for a new offensive in World War I, and the fears of the anarchist-dominated 1st Machine-gun Regiment that it would be sent to the northern front as a means of containing their revolutionary zeal. The Bolsheviks vacillated on the question, provoking a split between the party leadership and what historian Marc Ferro calls “the vanguard, where Bolsheviks co-operated with anarchists, and in July there was conflict”. Many Bolshevik leaders like Vladimir Lenin were in the countryside when the revolt broke out. Among the most notable of the agitators was the Belorussian anarchist-communist tinsmith Iosif Solomonovich Bleikhman (1868-1921). Converted to anarchism while in the United States in 1904, he was jailed by the Tsarist regime on his return to Russia, only being liberated along with many political prisoners during the bourgeois February 1917 Revolution which toppled the Tsar and installed Kerensky. Bleikhman became a leading light in the Petrograd Anarchist Communist Federation (PACF), which was founded in April 1917, and a writer for its paper Burevestnik (Stormy Petrel) and for Kommuna (Commune), paper of the Petrograd Anarchist Federation (PAF), which had been founded in 1906, surviving in clandestinity for a decade. 

The Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky condescendingly describes Bleikhman – calling him Bleichman – but is unable to avoid the fact that Bleikhman’s fiery oratory matched the aspirations of the revolutionary soldiers in particular:  "… the anarchist Bleichman, a small but colourful figure on the background of 1917, with a very modest equipment of ideas but a certain feeling for the masses – sincere in his limited and ever inflammable intelligence – his shirt open at the breast and curly hair flying out at all sides. Bleichman was greeted at such meetings with a certain amount of semi-ironical sympathy. The workers, it is true, treated him somewhat coolly, but the soldiers smiled delightedly at his speeches, nudging each other with their elbows and egging the orator on with pithy comments. They plainly liked his eccentric looks, his unreasoning decisiveness, and his Jewish-American accent sharp as vinegar. By the end of June, Bleichman was swimming in all these impromptu meetings like a fish in a river. His opinion he had always with him: It is necessary to come out with arms in our hands. Organisation? ‘The street will organise us.’ The task? ‘To overthrow the Provisional Government just as it overthrew the czar although no party was then demanding it.’ These speeches perfectly met the feelings of the machine-gunners – and not theirs alone. Many of the Bolsheviks did not conceal their satisfaction when the lower ranks pushed forward against their official admonition."

In other words, the rank-and-file Bolsheviks, like the soldiers, were more in tune with anarchist-communism than with Bolshevism. Of course, Bleikhman, as a PACF militant, believed firmly in organisation, but was indicating that the revolution was not the preserve of specific organisations, but rather of the popular classes as a whole – an idea that was anathema to the Bolsheviks who had made a fetish of the dominant role of the hierarchical vanguard party. Bleikhman addressed a large gathering of soldiers (including the machine-gunners), sailors and workers, saying, according to Ferro, "We want to overthrow the government, not to hand power to the bourgeois soviet, but to take it ourselves."

Ferro said the slogans that won the day, however, continued to back the soviets. He quotes an unpublished Petrograd archive document that “displays the grassroots unity of anarchists and Bolsheviks” who set up a joint Provisional Revolutionary Committee (VRK) on the eve of the revolt: "One witness said that Bleikhman was spoiling for a fight, being in an excited condition, and telling the soldiers that they could count on the workers and sailors, for they would join in if there were a rising. The soldiers who were there said, ‘Yes, go ahead, we’re ready for it.’ The machine-gunners were nervous, for they had to strike the first blow…"

The historian Malcolm Archibald recalls the crucial role of the anarcho-insurrectionist Maria “Marusya” Nikiforova in the uprising: “The participation of sailors from the nearby Kronstadt naval base was crucial and the anarchists put together a team of agitators to persuade the sailors to take part. Having recently arrived in Russia, Marusya was one of the anarchists who went to Kronstadt. She gave a series of speeches on the huge Anchor Square to crowds as large as 8,000 to 10,000 sailors, urging them not to stand aside from their brothers in the capital.” Under the aegis of the VRK, Bleikhman and various Bolsheviks were to lead the machine-gunners (and no doubt many PACF and Bolshevik militants) and arrest Kerensky and the Provisional Government ministers, occupy the telephone exchange and the railway station, while the workers would march on Kronstadt and meet up with the sailors. But the Bolshevik leadership and many in the Petrograd Soviet were dead set against the revolt, believing it to be premature, and tried to persuade the soldiers to back down, but instead the demonstration swelled as armed workers joined the soldiers’ march on the city centre. 

However, it failed to detain Kerensky and the demonstration petered out as participants started to return home, confused by the in-fighting in Bolshevik ranks. Some regiments were against pressing the advantage, although the Kronstadt sailors still had their blood up, so the following morning, Bleikhman again led an armed column on the Tauride Palace where both the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government’s Duma were headquartered, this time joined by the famous Left SR Maria Spiridonova. At the Tauride, as Ferro notes, demands were put forward for the release of an anarchist sailor arrested at the PAF headquarters Villa Durnovo, and for the Soviet to take power from the government. Trotsky was heckled by sailors angry at his support for the dithering Soviet. Fighting broke out between insurrectionaries and loyalist troops. But three regiments brought in from the front to defend the Soviet (and ironically, by doing so, the government) finally routed the rebels.

The “July Days” were followed by state repression and the arrest of anarchists and Bolsheviks. Ferro inaccurately claims that the anarchists disappeared “as a motive force” after the revolt was defeated, but in the aftermath, many Bolsheviks as well as anarchists were forced into hiding or even exile (Lenin himself was battling against the smear that he was a German spy). The right-wing Kadets and the industrialists gained in confidence. Ferro quotes the anarchist historian of the revolution, Voline, describing the white reaction: "In the name of the [bourgeois February] Revolution, the secret police has come to life again, the individual’s liberties have been suppressed, and the old atrocities of the police chiefs will be started again… in the name of the Revolution, the gates have been opened to the most hideous counter-revolution."

Fleshin and Steimer recalled the insurrection so: “Then came the famous July Days. Of course, Bolsheviks now omit to mention that anarchists were at the time fighting, taking soldiers out [into protests] and made speeches against Kerensky’s gangs alongside them, and then paid for that with prison terms. And only anarchists, of all the revolutionary organisations. The July defeat drove anarchists and Bolsheviks underground. [The PAF newspaper] Commune is published clandestinely. But Voline still delivers his lectures on the Vyborg side [Petrograd's factory district] with huge attendance by workers; it is still possible to hold rallies.” 

Archibald writes: “The government began hunting down the Bolsheviks and anarchists. Some of the Bolsheviks, including Marusya's friend [the Bolshevik] Alexandra Kollontai, ended up in prison while others escaped to nearby Finland. Bleikhman was given sanctuary by the Kronstadt sailors who protected him from arrest. Marusya decided it was a good time to return to Ukraine and help revive the anarchist movement there. In July 1917 she arrived back in Aleksandrovsk [Oleksandrivsk, Ukraine], after an eight-year odyssey which had taken her around the world.” She would go on to command a Black Guard detachment that liberated four Ukrainian cities and installed left-wing revolutionary soviets, helping create the space in which the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine (RPAU) would rise and initiate the anarchist-inspired Ukrainian Revolution. 

The July Days events merely hardened the resolve of many to overthrow the Provisional Government, and underlined the growing gulf between the Provisional Government and large sectors of the popular classes, and the deepening polarisation inherent in dual power between the soviets and the government. Subsequent moves by General Lavr Kornilov, supreme commander of the armed forces from July, to seize power and create a dictatorship created further distrust and spurred the growth of the Red Guards, Black Guards and military soviets. When the social revolution finally succeeded in October 1917, anarchists again played key roles.

Despite their near-fatal vacillation during the July Days, the Bolshevik leadership was now confident that the Provisional Government could be overthrown, a view shared by many anarchists. A series of meetings in the Bolshevik Party saw Lenin win support for the idea of an insurrection, which was subsequently endorsed by the Petrograd Soviet. The uprising was organised through the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, headed by Trotsky, and made up of forty-eight Bolsheviks, fourteen Left SRs, and four anarchists: Vladimir “Bill” Shatov, Anatoli Zhelezniakov, Efim Yartchuk and Henri Bogatski.

On the night of the 25th of October, the Military Revolutionary Committee and its allies made their move. Petrograd and its Winter Palace were famously taken after brief fighting – the anarchist Anatolyi Zhelezniakov leading a contingent of sailors in the assault – and while the rising in Moscow was bloodier, it too was as successful. Fleshin and Steimer recalled: “But then comes October. Again, anarchists are alongside the Communists, everywhere, in the [Winter] Palace Square, at the storming of the Pavel Military School. Anarchist Anatoli Zhelezniakov is one of the chief dispersers of Chernov’s talk shop [the Constituent Assembly], anarchists are at Tsarskoye Selo [a suburb south of the city, now called Pushkin], where Kerensky is finally repulsed [during the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising]. Anarchist [Iustin] Zhuk – a political convict who served his hard labour sentence in Shlisselburg – leads a Shlisselburg workers’ detachment to guard the Smolny [Soviet headquarters] and then to Tsarskoye Selo to meet Kerensky."

The day after the storming of the Wnter Palace, Lenin was able to announce to the Second Congress of Soviets, then meeting in Petrograd, with Zhelezniakov as a Kronstadt Soviet delegate, that the Provisional Government had fallen and that the soviets were now in power. Several attempts to overthrow the Petrograd Soviet, and restore the Provisional Government were swiftly defeated by Red Guards and Black Guards. The anarchist-dominated Dvinsk Regiment, for example, decisively defeated an attempt at counter-revolution by the Kadets. It was a moment of incredible hope, when all the future seemed open. The soviets and factory committees were in charge, the Red Guards and Black Guards patrolled the streets, “workers’ control” and even self-management seemed the model of the future, and the old Russia, with its autocracy and repression and hunger seemed dead at last, blasted away by the blaze of revolution. 

Writing the best eye-witness account of the Russian Revolution, the book Ten Days that Shook the World, US communist John Reed, who was close to the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, riding to Petrograd in a truck loaded with Red Guards and driven by a grizzled worker, recalled dawn breaking that fateful day: "The road was crowded with the proletarian army going home, and new reserves were pouring out to take their places … Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the capital, immeasurably more splendid by night than by day, like a dike of jewels on the barren plain. The old workman who drove held the wheel in one hand, while with the other he swept the far-gleaming capital in an exultant gesture. ‘Mine!’ he cried, his face all alight. ‘All mine now! My Petrograd!’"


Thursday 2 November 2017

Distilling the Vision

The acknowledgements page in any book concentrates the writer's mind in recalling that writing is not at all the lonely task it is made out to be, but that scores of people contribute to the distillation of vision. Here is the text from that page in Drinking with Ghosts (2014):

I want to thank my publishers at BestRed, Jeremy Wightman
and Fiona Wakelin, for getting excited about the original
idea, my editor Karen Press for her many and sterling
improvements, and former Military Intelligence officer Lt-Col
Danie Crowther for his fact-checking. A book of this scope,
which simultaneously covers my country’s transition and my
own personal evolution, naturally owes much to those who
have assisted my research, so heartfelt thanks is due to my
beloved archivists, unsung heroes of the preservation of our
national memory, especially Michelle Leon of the Times Media
Group, and Zeenath Ismail of Independent Newspapers
– as well as Kashiefa Ajam of Saturday Star and Noor-Jehan
Yoro-Badat of The Star. I’m especially indebted to journaliststurned-
writers Rian Malan, Julian Rademeyer and Tony
Wende for their invaluable critiques of my text.
I would not have become the rather maverick journalist
I did if not for my mentors, so I recognise the contributions of
my first news editor, the late Joe Mulraney of The Natal Mercury,
who taught me that the foundation of my craft lay in paying
attention to detail; my third news editor, Shami Harichunder,
who showed me the bridge still to be crossed; and my quiet
friend Philani Mgwaba who had lost almost his whole family
to internecine fighting in Zululand, yet helped me cross
that bridge, sitting with a quart of Black Label between my
knees, listening to the Umlazi Gospel Choir in black tie raise
the roof of a shed in rural Ixopo – its loveliness famed in Cry
the Beloved Country; my fourth news editor, the late George
Mahabeer, who was the quintessential street-smart, socially
connected journalist; and I am especially indebted to Jocelyn
Maker, who founded the Sunday Times Investigations Unit,
and who panel-beat me into the investigative journalist I am
today. I have attempted here to credit my colleagues for their
contributions to my work, but there are those who make the
headlines sing, yet whose bylines do not appear in the records;
to my scores of wonderful, unsung subs, this is for you!
There are others who, in blazing trails through the bleak
wildernesses of massacre and memory, set the benchmark
for my efforts, and whom I have had the privilege to meet:
Antjie Krog who walked the Truth Commission’s trail of
tears for all of us, interlocuting the enormity of our crimes
in her Country of My Skull; Ariel Dorfman of Chile, who so
accurately inscribed to me his book on exile, longing, loss
and belonging, Feeding on Dreams: ‘this book, that could be
about South Africa’; indefatigable, gentlemanly anarchist
revolutionary Octavio Alberola Suriñach, whose campaign
to try to break Spain’s ‘Pact of Forgetting’ the horrors of the
Franco era dovetails with my project of recovering memory
in Southern Africa; and Rasha Salti of Lebanon, whose own
penetrating forensic meditations on her country’s transition
in Beirut Bereft resonated so immediately with my own
musings on our haunted condition as I wrote this book. I
have not met writer and consummate forensic journalist Gitta
Sereny, but her unflinching and yet nuanced interrogation of
the aftermath of the Nazi era, The German Trauma, was the
inspiration for this book.
Lastly there are those thousands of ‘ordinary’ people
I have interviewed in my career, especially those I have
quoted here in the text, many of whom I’m sure you
will agree are quite extraordinary. We journalists have no
authority to force interviewees to speak to us; we rely merely
on our reputations for fair dealing, so a profound thank you
is owed to all, villains and virtuous ones alike, who trusted
me enough to tell me a little of their personal truths; I trust I
have been fair to you. There are many others who may remain
unnamed, but to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for the way
I came to see the world: the fierce, such as anti-apartheid
fighter Rica Hodgeson, secretary to Walter Sisulu, who in
her eighties once told me that those whites who didn’t want
to live alongside blacks in Hillbrow as she did ‘can just
fuck off!’; the passionate, such as bag lady Doreen Gunn,
whose infectious, all-consuming love for the lost drove me
to walk the streets of the East Rand for five months on an
investigation; and the lost themselves, such as the sad whore
on whose thin pink crocheted bedspread in her tiny Albert
Park apartment with the rickety dressing table we used to lie
fully clothed and speak of dreams – until she lit her Mandrax
pipe and it was time for me to go; and my debonair friend
and former photographer Anton Hammerl, killed by Gaddafi
loyalist troops outside Brega during the Libyan Civil War on
5 April 2011, who used to sing me songs by psychobilly band
The Cramps on our many long journeys behind the curtain.
Of course, I need to issue the amateur historian’s caveat:
while I have striven to be as fair and accurate as possible,
any errors of fact or interpretation are my own. I do,
however, recognise the difference between what the French
term verité (truth) and veracité (veracity): both the journalist
and the historian have as their task the search for veracity
rather than truth, for there are many truths, yet it is out of
verifiable, established facts that the strands of different,
sometimes competing, sometimes complementary, and often
illuminating truths emerge. I trust that readers will take
away with them new nuances to their personal truths about
my country’s past, and thus, its future.


Wednesday 1 November 2017

In a Garden in Seville

This is an extract from my forthcoming book, Isandlwana - a Love Story. 

Three green parrots that look more like African Rift Valley fish, swim past, cheeping, through the entwined palms and cypresses, the cries of owls, cicadas and parakeets resonate, ringing around the memorial to Gustavo Bécquer, the Sevillian poet, where three marble women on a bench, clung together in their carven crimplenes, describe the passion, expressed in his words, of the traverse of the mystery: “The invisible atoms of the air / pulsate all around and become inflamed… / What is happening? Tell me! / Silence! It is love that is passing!” 

The first woman sits low, as in a reverie, her fan is snapped shut, hair in a bun, her cheeks rounded with puppy-fat, a single rose fallen into the crease of her gown; she is anticipation. The second woman is more refined, her cheek thrown back in immodest ecstasy, her ringlets falling to her half-bared shoulders, her right hand laid over her heart; she is consummation. The third woman leans against her and looks away, a veiled mantilla crowning her ageing face, her hands clutched in sentiment; she is melancholia. Flanking Bécquer in bronze, a lively child-like Cupid, his quiver full, prepares to dart the young woman – but on the other side, an adult Eros lies dying, his bow dropped, his wings crumpled, his arm raised in fruitless supplication, a dagger buried in his back… And yet it is here that a bold cypress, of formidable girth, chosen by the poet’s friends for its longevity, surpasses its intention, slowly pushing the marble blocks aside, dismantling the monument to ephemeral passion.

Nearby, water gouts from the throats of three pipes, falling from a 1960s ceramic sunburst sky into a rectangular pool that is underfilled, a backdrop to a reclining stone statue of another woman, whose stone head has been removed by thieves. In a pool two young girls, very blonde, swim in their shorts to beat the heat; emerging, water runs down their thighs; they tremble at the cloud of my passing.