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Book review: Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870—1940

Review by Wayne Price.
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It is widely believed on the radical left that anarchism has been solely a movement of Europe and North America. Marxists and liberals state that anarchism has never had anything to offer the majority of humanity in the oppressed and impoverished nations (the so-called “Third World”)—unlike Marxism or pro-Western liberalism. This is not just a historical argument. Today there is a great expansion of international anarchism. The assertion of anarchism’s supposed irrelevance to the exploited nations in the past is an assertion that anarchism cannot be relevant to most of the world today. The contrary claim that anarchism as a movement was once significant for colonized peoples is a claim that it may be significant now and in the future.

That claim is made by the papers in Hirsch and van der Walt’s book. It covers the period from the last quarter of the 19th century up to World War II, although some chapters only include shorter periods (such as up to the 1920s). Within this timespan, the papers cover the historical impact of anarchism in several countries throughout the regions of the earth.

For Eastern Asia, chapters discuss anarchism in China and in Korea. For Latin America, it covers Peru, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and Brazil. For the Arab East, it has a paper on Egypt. Subsahara Africa is represented in a paper on South Africa. There is a chapter on Ukraine. This is a brilliant, brief, summary of the Ukrainian movement led by Nestor Makhno during the time of the Russian Revolution.

The only Western European country discussed is Ireland, which was a colony of Britain. Ireland did not have much of an explicitly anarchist movement, but it had a significant syndicalist movement (radical unionism, which overlaps with anarchism).

The writers do not deny that anarchism and syndicalism began in Western Europe. Capitalism and industrialism began there and, therefore, so did the reactions to them: liberalism, nationalism, Marxism, as well as anarchism.These ideologies then spread over the world, interacting with and merging with local conditions.

In particular, anarchism was spread by the international circulation of workers and others. Many Spanish-speaking anarchist workers went to the Western hemisphere. They went mainly to make a living but they spread anarchism and built syndicalist unions in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the U.S.A. Italian anarchists worked in Egypt, and spread their ideas to Egyptians and workers of other countries. Chinese and Korean workers and young intellectuals traveled to Japan, to learn from Japanese anarchists, as well as a few going as far as Paris, to bring back radical ideas. European workers settled in South Africa and spread anarchist ideas to the Africans. International networks of anarchists were central to the spread of anarchism.

Throughout the world, class-struggle anarchist ideas merged with ideas of the IWW and with Marxist syndicalism (such as DeLeonism), as well as with “native” traditions of struggle against oppression. Anarchist-influenced syndicalist unions were built throughout the oppressed nations, even more than in Western Europe.

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