Q&A with Michael Schmidt author of “Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism”


Why did you write this book, and how to feel that is contributes to the conversation around the history of anarchism and revolutionary practice?

Michael Schmidt: The US edition is funnily enough a slightly expanded English-language translation of its first, French-language edition (Montreal, Canada, 2012). The book originated in a 2010 meeting in Montreal with Marie-Eve Lamy of Lux Éditeur who had attended a launch of Black Flame, and who was intrigued by the unusual geographical breadth of our research. She dug up a pamphlet of mine from 2005 called Five Waves, in which I had tried to sketch some sort of a skeleton structure that was emerging from our ongoing research into what will become Black Flame‘s sister volume Global Fire, a grand global synthesis of anarchist movement history; from Afghanistan to Argentina, Sweden to Swaziland, Mexico to Manchuria, Uruguay to Uganda. I substantially rewrote and updated Five Waves and that became the French edition – in a series alongside Chomsky, Zinn, Graeber, and Holloway, something I was very pleased with. I improved and polished the book for AK Press’ US edition, adding maps. In essence it is designed to be what the Quebecois, I am told, used it for during their “Hot Spring” last year: as an introduction to global (not-all-palefaced) anarchist history, and to the movement’s key debates on how the militants related to the masses. It contributes two vital strings to the anarchists’ intellectual bow: firstly, it establishes patterns of organisational continuity stretching beyond the usual bookending of the movement between France in 1895 and Spain in 1939, dating the movement’s origins to the 1860s, and continuing past the Spanish Revolution right up until the present; and secondly, it establishes for a movement usually accepted – even by anarchist themselves – as chaotic, an ideological coherence, especially relating to the question of how and why anarchists organise.

Who are you trying to reach with this book? Who’s the target audience?

MS: The core target readership is anarchist militants themselves, as well as all anti-authoritarian socialists, and horizontalist, directly-democratic activists. In the Anglophone and even Francophone anarchist movements, there is an astounding ignorance about anarchist history in the Latin world where it massively overshadowed all other tendencies for decades, not to mention North Africa, East Asia and other regions where it was significantly articulated with resistance to colonialism and imperialism. In part it is not their fault: working class studies have been amputated by almost a century of well-heeled Marxist academic hagiography that deliberately distorted and derided the poor-boy anarchist record as, at best, a juvenile, pre-Marxist deviation. Also, only recently have transnational studies broken down the geo-linguistic barriers between anarchist histories to provide a holistic framework for understanding how this quintessentially transnational movement transmitted its ideas and implanted its praxis across the world. So the libertarian socialists are my first target readership, but widening in circles beyond that are also academics interested in transnational working class studies, as well as anti-capitalist activists grasping for a proletarian praxis with a better pragmatic and ethical track-record to the tried-and-failed statist cul-de-sac.

What was the most challenging part of putting together a book like this? What was the most rewarding?

MS: Writing it, flat-out, in a month – with adequate footnotes – was definitely the most challenging part! I was given the opportunity to do a Clive Menell Media Fellowship at Duke University in North Carolina in the fall of 2011, and I made use of the month-long break from my work to write the text. Synthesising such an enormous history – far more extensive than most anarchists themselves are aware – was not so much of a challenge as the Counter-power volumes have so far involved more than 13 years of research, so I knew my way around the material pretty well, but of course I had to fact-check as I went along, and ensure that the footnotes gave readers the best launching-points for further study of their own. And that is not always easy; for instance, there is no adequate study of the Latin American anarchist movement as a continental whole, despite the fact that the movement there was more dominant, in places right into the 1960s, than anywhere else in the world. The most rewarding was definitely seeing it actually used as an introductory text for activists engaged in Montreal’s “Hot Spring,” closely followed by the interest shown in it by pro-democracy militants in parts of North Africa such as Morocco and Algeria that have not – yet – succumbed to the “Arab Spring”.

What do you want readers to take away from the book? What are the essential lessons?

MS: I definitely want them to take away a global sense of an organised egalitarian movement that, while its fortunes surged and receded in concert with working class fortunes more generally in this danse macabre with the expansions and contractions of capitalism over the past 150 years, has never said die. I want them to get an appreciation for the fact that it was a movement that managed to adapt to, and even thrive, in some of the most benighted circumstances of the industrial and post-industrial ages, in conditions of extreme deprivation and exclusion, bridging communities that were cynically divided by the elites by race, language, gender, ethnicity and so forth. Lucien van der Walt and I have a comparative analysis between the movements in North Africa and Southern Africa that will be published in Buenos Aires this year which shows that the movement managed to directly confront very local questions of class fragmentation by religion or race, while at the same time managing to maintain its universalist message; in other words, it adapted realistically to local conditions but ethically rose above them. Next, I want readers to take away an impression – and the book is too short to give more than that, but that will be the fully-fledged task of Global Fire – of the 15-decade sweep of a truly international movement that exhibited remarkable organisational tenacity in conditions of economic collapse, Fascism, Bolshevism, and war – not to mention the seductions of consumer and entertainment culture, and of the monocultural uniformity programmes of universal “education” and the adult franchise. This sense of organisational, programmatic anarchism, that I show in many cases beyond Spain in the 1930s actually wielded proletarian counter-power in individual city communes, or across wider swathes of land and industry, liberating millions of people for several years, demonstrates the non-utopian nature of the anarchist constructive project to build a better world. In a future work, Critial Mass, I will mine down further into how such counter-power was structured on the ground, how it operated in social and geographic space. My intention here is to demonstrate that far from rejecting power – which is essentially merely the ability to get things done – the anarchist movement most often engaged directly with the question of how to wrest that ability from the parasitic elites and to decentralise it to the people, creating a counter-power, buttressed by a working-class counter-culture that stressed rational, egalitarian ways of being. Lastly, I want readers to take away a better understanding of how the majority of the movement grappled with this question of power, especially how they themselves related to the oppressed classes, acting as catalysts for mass autogestion rather than as a leadership clique. I will have done my job if readers can take away a sense that the movement has, for all its periods of despair in which some adherents abandoned the class line, many others rose again and again to challenge the extractive, exploitative, repressive statist-capitalist monocultural monster in realistic yet creative ways.

15 August 2013