The Symbols of Anarchy, revisited

We included an appendix on “The Symbols of Anarchy” in An Anarchist FAQ which covered the two main flags of Anarchy, the black and the red-and-black. Later, we blogged about “The Red Flag of Anarchy” and how the likes of Proudhon and Bakunin associated themselves with this iconic embalm of labour and socialism. Here, we add new material.

As noted in our previous discussions, the red, black and black-and-red flags were all bound with – to use Kropotkin’s expression – the direct struggle against capital. The first two were recognised symbols of working class struggle in France, taken up by the socialist movement – the first by all schools, the second exclusively by libertarian socialists. The diagonal combination of the two was created within Spanish anarcho-syndicalism in the early 1930s.

However, as noted in our original appendix, a black-and-red flag was used as early as 1874 in Italy. We now have an idea what this flag looked like and it was not, as expected, the famous diagonal red-and-black popularised over fifty-years later:

“The flag adopted by the International is red, framed in black.” (Errico Malatesta, The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader [Oakland/Edinburgh: AK Press, 2014], 65)

Interestingly, use of the red-flag by individualist anarchists was challenged by one of their activists. Writing in Liberty, J. William Lloyd noted in 1894 how “Collectivists have one unmistakable sign — the red flag — under which they are all broadly grouped. If we permit ourselves to be enrolled under that banner we are hopelessly confounded with them.” He proposed “that instead of a red flag we have a white flag with a red heart in its centre. And over the heart our watchword, Equal Liberty; beneath, the motto, ‘The World Is Our Country,’ in letters of green.” (Liberty, 28 July 1894) He explained his choice:

“Now, by the universal consent of mankind, white is the color of peace and of amicable and reasoning conference. A white flag needs no explanation where it is manifestly not used with the idea of surrender, which the red heart precludes. And the red heart is equally unmistakable, — all the symbolism of one blood, the Common Heart, fraternity, and universal love, which the most favorable imagination can discover in the red flag, are still more clearly contained in the white. The lettering is green, for that is the recognized color of youth, hope, growth, prosperity, and healthy vision.”

Such a flag, he continued, “will be understood to declare that we believe in peace, liberty, and fraternity, while the more thoughtful will perceive the deeper implications of the abolition of party, national lines, and local patriotism, the assertion of non-invasion, free-thought, free-trade, free-love, cooperation, social order, and prosperity. An opposition to the red flag will be equally manifest.” This was driven by those “militant Anarchists” whose “deeds of fanatical violence and senseless destruction” had distorted anarchism, associating “the philosophical name of a sect of non-invasive Socialists” with “the popular use of the term as a synonym of disorder, chaos, and the propaganda of assassination.” For “we are the only Anarchists and that these dynamiters are not Anarchists at all.”

This led to some debate, with Lizzie M. Holmes who noted his “remarkable lack of comprehension of the position occupied by those known as ‘revolutionary Anarchists’” and explained their actual position. C. J. Zeitinger agreed with Lloyd, arguing the “sooner we make the distinction clear the better” for the general public “confounded philosophical Anarchy with the red-flag Anarchy, which is a most deadly poison to our progress.” (Liberty, 11 August 1894) William Bailie argued as follows:

“the followers of Liberty’s Anarchism […] are squarely on the side of labor in the ceaseless struggle it is forced to wage with the exploiters; and although the red flag has been identified with labor back to the remotest antiquity, the banner of the uprisen slave, the toiler, the lowly, the rebel, economic, social, political, in Asia, Carthage, France, London, and Chicago down to the present day, — being the symbol of the sun, which through labor fructifies the earth, of the blood in all men’s veins, white, black, or yellow, the symbol of fraternity and the common origin and destiny of man; although, for these reasons, it has always struck terror to the organized thieves and tyrants as the symbol of their just doom, and never been more respectable than it is today, — as why should it?—the fierce emblem of the downtrodden, for justice has always required blood, and now no less than in the past, in spite of the philosophical conviction of its futility: Despair and suffering being seldom philosophical; and while it seems a heavy undertaking to break away from so much well- grounded tradition and reject the simple and obvious symbol of militant labor, yet the reasons for so doing seem weighty and, if but of an ephemeral nature, still no less convincing.” (Liberty, 8 September 1894)

Another individualist anarchist urged Liberty’s readers to remember that “Reds we Remain” and so “use the red one” for the “same arguments which lead us to retain our name deter us from changing our flag. We are still Socialists, fighting the battle of the proletariat. Let us continue, then, if any flag is necessary, to fly the colors under which its battles have been fought and won for thousands of years, instead of changing to the color of aristocracy.” (F. D. Tandy, Liberty, 20 October 1894)

The debate soon ended out with no decision reached, still it is of interest. Clearly, many individualist anarchists had no problem with the red flag or being considered socialists – even the initiator of the debate considered his school “a sect of non-invasive Socialists.” As discussed in section G, this is unsurprising given the anti-capitalism of individualist anarchism. However, it must be noted that the suggested flag was somewhat blind to the wider context in three ways.

First, the title of the initiating article included a term, “color line,” which was originally used as a reference to the racial segregation that existed in the United States after the abolition of slavery. An article by Frederick Douglass titled “The Color Line” was published in the North American Review in 1881 (the phrase gained fame after its repeated use by W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk). Its use here is unfortunate, to say the least.

Second, the Confederate States of America adopted a flag in 1863 which was a pure white field with the Confederate Battle Flag displayed in a position equivalent to the stars on the Flag of the United States. The design lasted until March 1865, when concerns about it being mistaken for a flag of truce when the flag was not completely flying necessitated the addition of a broad red band on the fly edge.

Third, the white flag was associated with reaction. In France, starting in the early 17th century, the royal standard was a plain white flag as a symbol of purity, sometimes covered in fleur-de-lis. It was also used as a symbol of military command in the Ancien Régime French army (French troops fighting in the American Revolutionary War fought under the white flag). Unsurprisingly, during the French Revolution, the white flag quickly became a symbol of French royalists and of the counter-revolution. Later, during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920, the counter-revolutionary forces seeking a return to Tsarism likewise were called “the Whites.”

Only F. D. Tandy made a reference to its use by aristocracy, while no one referenced the white flag’s confederacy connotations. This is strange given how abolitionism was a major concern of individualist anarchists (we can imagine the disgust they would have viewed the support for “voluntary slavery” expressed by many propertarians). Perhaps, then, we should not be too surprised by the lack of traction of Lloyd’s suggestion – not least given how many individualists were unwilling to wave any flag at all.

Suffice to say, there is no “White Flag of Anarchy” and the symbols of Anarchy remain black and red – with purple (anarcha-feminism) and green (eco-anarchism) added in the latter-half of the twentieth century

Finally, we should note that “anarcho”-capitalists not content with stealing the terms “libertarian” and “anarchist” from the left, also sought to appropriate to our flag. Murray Rothbard, in the same memoirs in which he merrily admitted to stealing “libertarian” from the left in the late 1950s, also noted that it was in the winter of 1963–64 that “the first time in public some of the group also unfurled the ‘black-and-gold flag,’ the colors of which we had all decided best represented anarcho-capitalism: black as the classic color of anarchism and gold as the color of capitalism and hard money.” (The Betrayal of the American Right [Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007], 188)

Rothbard did not bother to ask why the black was the “classic” colour of anarchism for if he had he may have been less keen to appropriate it. After all, it was taken up by anarchists precisely because it was a recognised symbol of labour protest against capitalism. As Louise Michel – who as noted in our appendix, was instrumental in popularising the use of the Black Flag in anarchist circles – stated, the “black flag is the flag of strikes and the flag of those who are hungry” and “with layers of blood upon it from those who wanted to live by working or die by fighting, frightens those who want to live off the work of others.” (The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel, 168, 193-4)

The first anarchist journal to call itself Black Flag – the Lyons based Le Drapeau Noir: Organe Anarchiste – noted in its first issue of 12 August 1883 in an article entitled “The ‘Black Flag’” how it was inspired by its use in the city’s 1831 labour revolt alongside the cry “Live by working or die fighting.” The article is very clear that the journal’s title reflected the flag’s use in the class struggle:

‘The 'Black Flag

“Live by working

“or die fighting.

“It is not only throw a new challenge to bourgeois society that we have given this newspaper […] the title of Black Flag […] We also wanted to keep the memory of this glorious workers’ insurrection alive ever more […] we wanted the bourgeoisie to be again well aware that the only flag under which we gather is the one which misery and despair warranted raising in the streets of Groix-Rousse on 21 November 1831 and that until the day of our future victory we shall have no other. […] What we want to wage now […] is the only logical war […] the social war.

“We therefore call those who suffer, those who gasp under the every-increasing burden of misery [...] who have had enough of exploitation and slavery, who want to end forever political and economic domination which overwhelms us […] it is a duel to the death with bourgeois society that begins […] and raising the black flag, by waving in the wind the dark folds of the flag of despair is more than a warning, it is better than an appeal, it is the very sign that we sending to the old world of its death that we raise, it is the inescapable promise of its imminent end, and at the same time, for all the poor, for all the wretches, and for all the hungry, the definite announcement of an era of happiness, justice, freedom and peace: ANARCHY.” (Le « Drapeau Noir », Le Drapeau Noir : Organe Anarchiste, 12 Août 1883)

It is easy to see why the Black Flag is the “classic” flag of anarchism, for it is a symbol raised by labour itself in its struggle against capital. Given this, attempts to join black and gold simply show a woeful understanding of the meaning and history of anarchism and the symbols which reflect both.

Given the discussion on “red-flag” and “white-flag” anarchism in 1894, perhaps the “White-and-Gold” flag would be a better symbol for “anarcho”-capitalism? Yet, no. While undoubtedly its use by “anarcho”-capitalists would reflect the white-flag’s use as a symbol of aristocratic reaction, the fact is that individualist anarchism and “anarcho”-capitalism are far apart – one is socialistic, the other capitalistic (as Rothbard once admitted). More precisely, the individualist anarchists rejected “hard money” along with capitalism and joined other reformers seeking the end of both. Trying to fuse the two would be as contradictory as trying to fuse the black and the gold – or as oxymoronic as prefixing “anarcho” to capitalism. It would be unjust to taint individualist anarchism with “anarcho”-capitalism by suggesting the latter’s use of a symbol raised by advocates of the former. We leave it for “anarcho”-capitalists to come up with both a better name and symbol to represent their system of private hierarchies.

Thanks to Shawn Wilbur for posting the article and letters related to the “White-Flag Anarchism” debate. We, of course, are solely responsible for the use made of the material.