BOOK REVIEW: Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, volume 1 (2009)

The following review was basically written in early 2010, just after the appearance of Black Flame. I held back from publication while awaiting volume 2, which has yet to appear. Time passing, I decided to go ahead and put it out there. –MM.

The following is a comradely criticism of a quite good book from a Marxist who generally identifies as a “libertarian communist.”

Emma Goldman, it is generally known, said that most Marxists know as much about anarchism as the average Catholic knows about Voltaire. I would generally confess to that characterization, but have over the years attempted to educate myself, both through books and discussions with anarchists and ex-anarchists. The Schmidt/van der Walt book is without doubt the one of the best overviews of anarchism and syndicalism I have come across in a very long time.


The authors (both South African, one a journalist, the other an academic) are not trying to write comprehensively about Marxism, but they still seem to have anarchist blind spots where Marx and Marxism are concerned. One can hardly write seriously about anarchism historically without mentioning its “great rival.” And in a good polemic, it is important to present the opponents’ case at its strongest, which Schmidt and van der Walt seriously fail to do.

At times they seem to assimilate Marx and Engels to a “classical Marxism” (the German SPD) which was “statist.” The SPD was in fact statist (i.e., “Lassallean”), but Marx and Engels wrote scathing critiques of it for exactly that. They actually agreed with some anarchist critiques of it, though they kept it to themselves, for better or for worse (mainly in their correspondence: in one letter, one of them says that Bakunin was mainly criticizing Lassalle thinking he was a Marxist; they also wrote to Bebel and Liebknecht completely rejecting the concept of “social democracy” as something utterly foreign to their communist project). And then there is their Critique of the Gotha Program, which the “Marxist” German SPD tried to suppress.

Schmidt and van der Walt want to undo the myth that anarchism was only successful in underdeveloped capitalist economies, and then promptly list ten peripheral countries in which it was important.[1]

In fact, the “classical Marxist” (and statist) parties such as the German SPD were “substitute bourgeois revolutions” in industrializing countries whose “real” telos was full-blown capitalism and parliamentary democracy, in places such as Germany where the latter barely existed. The opposite pole, Spain and Latin America, confirms this quite nicely, where the socialist parties, unlike the SPD, were nothing but parliamentary organizations of lawyers and doctors and where, as Schmidt and van der Walt say, anarchism built the mass working-class organizations. The only country they mention that might be considered as seriously industrialized with an important anarchist presence was France, and even there France was, prior to World War II, more a bourgeois democracy than a really advanced industrial country (50 percent of the population was still rural in 1945, not to mention when anarchist influence peaked around World War I).

The greatest weakness of Black Flame is its almost total lack of a discussion of the Marxists (after Marx) that one might broadly call “libertarian communist,” namely Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, CLR James and some aspects of Guy Debord. It also lacks an in-depth consideration of the soviets and workers’ councils in the Russian and German revolutions, which in this reviewer’s perspective were a lot more interesting than anything the anarchists, with the important exception of Spain, ever came up with in a mass movement situation.

The world hardly needs another rehash of the Bakunin-Nechaev relationship, but at the very least a book such as Black Flame should mention how Bakunin was taken in by him.

Then there is Schmidt and van der Walt’s discussion of Spain, and the desire to undo the “myth” of Spanish exceptionalism. Whatever else they might say, it was the one country where the anarchists came close to making a social revolution, and (as the authors themselves say) totally failed the test when push came to shove. There were thirty years of CNT/FAI rejection of “politics” and the state, and suddenly, in 1936, they have ministerial portfolios in a bourgeois government. For a book such as Black Flame, this failure (analogous to the failure of self-styled Marxists in Germany and Russia) is a question which deserves a lot more discussion than the authors give it.

Schmidt and van der Walt cast a pretty wide net for their (in my view special pleading) concept of “expanded anarchism,” as with syndicalism (e.g., the IWW, Daniel DeLeon, etc.). It should be recalled that DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party and the IWW briefly attempted a fusion (ca. 1905) which was in no way “anarchist.” Yes, the IWW was syndicalist, but IWW rank-and-filers organized study groups on Marx’s Capital, one of the few mass movements in the West where that happened, to my knowledge. Of course labels are misleading (it might well be said that some anarchist and libertarian critics of the Second International were more Marxist than the official “Marxists” of the time).

Along with special pleading for building a very large tent for anarchism and syndicalism, one footnote (chapter 3, note 108) really made this reviewer sit up and take notice. It is utterly garbled, and points to the authors’ sloppiness. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution for Russia (Marx had one for Germany) was a blast precisely against the two-stage theory, and it is completely false to say that the bourgeois revolution fell to the “party.” It fell to the working class, as was confirmed by 1905 and again by 1917. Trotsky was an anti-Leninist when he developed the theory, and it was a total outlier in the European revolutionary milieu until 1917 when Lenin adopted it. Such sloppiness, even on a small point, makes one wonder just how much Schmidt and van der Walt know about the adversary.

To conclude. What undid the anarchist (and syndicalist) mass movements in many countries? It was the Russian Revolution and the rise of mass Communist Parties, as well as the post-1900 phase of capitalist accumulation based on a preponderance of relative surplus value, the latter a major historical oversight of our authors. But lurking in Schmidt and van der Walt’s portrayal is the old assumption of “mean old statists” winning out. The truth was that many people they call anarchists and syndicalists found something in early Third International communism that was lacking in anarchism and syndicalism. As they do say, many anarchists and syndicalists read Lenin’s State and Revolution and assumed that anarchists had taken power in Russia. They were quickly disabused, and were out of the Third International by 1921–22. Some of them, such as the very interesting character Alfred Rosmer in France, became Trotskyists. Others, such as William Z. Foster and James P. Cannon, both longtime IWW militants, became Stalinists and Trotskyists respectively. Cannon and Foster were unhappy with the IWW well before 1917 or even World War I. A book such as Black Flame, to be convincing to the unconverted, would do well to devote some attention to what such people (in the case of Rosmer and Cannon, among the best) saw in early communism what they found lacking in the syndicalist tradition. They were not dishonest people who wanted to build statism. Let’s face it, as Schmidt and van der Walt do not: a lot of anarchists and syndicalists “failed the test” of World War I just as badly as most Marxists did (and one might mention the American, Italian and Serbian socialist parties, all of whom opposed entry into WWI). There is no reason to think that if Spain had entered the war, a similar split would not have occurred in the CNT/FAI.

With these provisos in mind, the reader (as did this reader) will find a lot to think about in Black Flame, and Insurgent Notes looks forward to reviewing volume 2.

  1. [1]On this problematic, cf. Loren Goldner, Ubu Saved From Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974–1977. The second part, on Spain, attempts to situate Spanish anarchism internationally.