Before Black Flame: A History of Historicist Accounts of Anarchism

In ‘Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism‘ Schmidt and van der Walt take a historicist approach to defining anarchism. They hold that anarchism first emerged as a movement, with an accompanying set of original and coherent ideas, during the 1860s within the International Workingmen’s Association. As a result anarchism should be defined in terms of the core commitments of this movement. To do this they focus primarily on the ideas of two of the movement’s most widely read and influential theorists – Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. (Schmidt and van der Walt 2009, 44-5)

They summarize their definition as follows:

Anarchism was against social and economic hierarchy as well as inequality—and specifically, capitalism, landlordism, and the state—and in favor of an international class struggle and revolution from below by a self-organised working class and peasantry in order to create a self-managed, socialist, and stateless social order. In this new order, individual freedom would be harmonised with communal obligations through cooperation, democratic decision making, and social and economic equality, and economic coordination would take place through federal forms. The anarchists stressed the need for revolutionary means (organisations, actions, and ideas) to prefigure the ends (an anarchist society). (ibid, 71-2)

On this view, anarchism can only be understand historically. Its ideas are those of a historically specific movement (anti-state Revolutionary Socialism), which emerged in historically specific conditions (19th century European capitalism), against historically specific institutions (the nation state and capitalism), and was comprised of historically specific agents (the peasantry and working class).

While Schmidt and van der Walt arguably provide the most in-depth attempt at doing a historicist account of anarchism, they are not the first to provide such an account. Historicist definitions of anarchism can be found in, at the very least, two earlier authors – Marie Fleming and Errico Malatesta.

In her 1979 biography of Elisee Reclus, ‘The Anarchist Way to Socialism’, Fleming defines anarchism in terms of the ideas of the movement which began in the federalist wing of the First International and which went onto establish the St Imier International in 1872. She writes:

The formulation of the theory of anarchism can be traced to Switzerland in the latter part of the 1870s. It developed out of the debates of a small group of revolutionary socialists who had helped to establish a so-called federalist wing of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) in 1872. After the Hague Congress of that year the IWMA had split into two groups, the federalist or ‘anti-authoritarian’ International which revolved around the Jura Federation in Switzerland and the less successful centralist International which followed Marx’s call for the use of party-political action and tighter control of the IWMA General Council over the various sections. The term anarchist is used today to refer to the members of the federalist International and was sometimes used in a pejorative sense in the first half of the 1870s to specify those socialists who refused to engage in party-political action within the framework of the bourgeois order. But the term did not come to be deliberately adopted until 1876 and not on any scale until after the collapse of the federalist (anti-authoritarian) International in 1877. (Fleming 1979, 119)

She then proceeds to define anarchism as a type of socialism characterized by a rejection of the use of state power to bring about socialism:

European anarchism was a theory of socialism which aimed, like all socialism, to arrive at a state of anarchy, an order which would spring naturally from the movement of free beings, responding to the needs of their nature. In the 1870s, anarchism differentiated itself from other socialist theories through its insistence that the existing bourgeois government appratus should not be used to effect the transition to the future society. (Ibid, 272)

It is not surprising then that Schmidt and van der Walt cite Fleming’s book multiple times and rely heavily on her critique of Paul Eltzbacher’s influential definition of anarchism in his work ‘Anarchism: Exponents of the Anarchist Philosophy‘. (Schmidt and van der Walt 2009, 35-9)

Historicist accounts of anarchism are not, however, an invention of academics. Malatesta outlined his historicist account of anarchism in 1925 for an article within the anarchist journal ‘Pensiero e Volonta’. He writes:

Anarchism in its origins, its aspirations, and its methods of struggle, is not necessarily linked to any philosophical system. Anarchism was born of a moral revolt against social injustice. When men were to be found who felt as if suffocated by the social climate in which they were obliged to live; who felt the pain of others as if it were their own; who were also convinced that a large part of human suffering is not the inevitable consequence of inexorable natural or supernatural laws, but instead, stems from social realities dependent on human will and can be eliminated through human effort—the way was open that had to lead to anarchism. The specific causes of social ills and the right means to destroy them had to be found. When some thought that the fundamental cause of the disease was the struggle between men which resulted in domination by the conquerors and the oppression and exploitation of the vanquished, and observed that the domination by the former and this subjection of the latter had given rise to capitalistic property and the State, and when they sought to overthrow both State and property—then it was that anarchism was born. (Malatesta 2015, 13)

Note in particular that Malatesta distinguishes between the preconditions for the development of anarchism, the specific social structures against which anarchism emerged, and the emergence of anarchism itself.  The preconditions for the development of anarchism are the existence of individuals who have empathy for the suffering of others, understand that a large amount of human suffering is caused by the structures of society, and so think that such suffering can be ended by altering social structures. Elsewhere Malatesta refers to these kind of individuals as possessing an anarchist spirit, as opposed to being anarchists. He writes, “By anarchist spirit I mean that deeply human sentiment, which aims at the good of all, freedom and justice for all, solidarity and love among the people; which is not an exclusive characteristic only of self-declared anarchists, but inspires all people who have a generous heart and an open mind.” (Quoted in Milstein 2010, 11) The specific social structures against which anarchism emerged are capitalism and the state. But anarchism itself only emerged when individuals, who possessed an anarchist spirit,  understood that the human suffering they objected to was caused by a ruling class dominating and exploiting the masses through the institutions of capitalist property and the state, and that given this, capitalism and the state must be abolished.

On Malatesta’s view, then, anarchism is a historical movement which emerged in response to historically specific institutions. In this sense, Malatesta is a precursor to both Fleming’s and Schmidt’s and van der Walt’s approach to defining anarchism.


Fleming, Marie. 1979. The Anarchist Way to Socialism. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Milstein, Cindy. 2010. Anarchism And Its Aspirations. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Schmidt, Michael and van der Walt, Lucien. 2009. Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

2 thoughts on “Before Black Flame: A History of Historicist Accounts of Anarchism”

  1. Hi Zoe,

    I went into this text thinking you might give your opinion on historicist accounts. I understand you are not fully satisfied with them – people who are tend to say they are _historical_ rather this _historicist_. Are you willing to write or have you written a little more about the subject, with your perspective? In other words, I’d love to read/watch your perspective, either in the form of a response to this comment or something else you’ve written/broadcasted.

    Thanks for all the brillant work online!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s