125 years of the black flag of anarchy

As well as 2008 being the 150th anniversary of anarchist use of the word “libertarian” to describe our ideas, this year also marks the 125th anniversary of the association of the black flag with anarchism. As we discuss in the “Symbols of Anarchy”, it was Louise Michel who was instrumental in popularising the use of the Black Flag in anarchist circles (she also played an important role in associating “libertarian” with anarchism).

On March 9th 1883, she flew the black flag during demonstration/riot of the unemployed in Paris, France. An open air meeting of the unemployed was broken up by the police and around 500 demonstrators, with Michel at the front carrying a black flag and shouting "Bread, work, or lead!" marched off towards the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The crowd pillaged three baker's shops before the police attacked. Michel was arrested and sentenced to six years solitary confinement. Public pressure soon forced the granting of an amnesty.

August the same year saw the publication of the anarchist paper Le Drapeau Noir (The Black Flag) in Lyon which suggests that it had become a popular symbol within anarchist circles.

The reason for the use of the black flag is similar to way anarchists also used the red flag: it was a recognised symbol of working class struggle and the labour movement. Michel stated that the “black flag is the flag of strikes and the flag of those who are hungry.” Le Drapeau Noir, first anarchist journal to be called Black Flag, argued that “[o]n the heights of the city [of Lyon] in la Croix-Rousse and Vaise, workers, pushed by hunger, raised for the first time this sign of mourning and revenge [the black flag], and made therefore of it the emblem of workers' demands.”

This was referring to the use of the black flag during the insurrection of 1831 in Lyons when the artisans of the city rose in armed conflict to gain a contract from the merchants, briefly taking control of the city under red and black flags. Unsurprisingly, Michel, like other anarchists, linked the use of the black and red flags:

“How many wrathful people, young people, will be with us when the red and black banners wave in the wind of anger! What a tidal wave it will be when the red and black banners rise around the old wreck!

"The red banner, which has always stood for liberty, frightens the executioners because it is so red with our blood. The black flag, 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. Those red and black banners wave over us mourning our dead and wave over our hopes for the dawn that is breaking.”

This makes the 1831 revolt a doubly memorable event in the history of revolutionary symbols. It should also be noted that the artisans called their ideas mutuelisme, from whom Proudhon appears to have picked up the word from his brief stay in the city in early 1840s. In terms of the history of anarchist thought as well as symbols, the Lyons revolt is particularly significant.

So given the roots of anarchism in the class struggle and the wider socialist and labour movements, it comes as no real surprise that anarchists should use a recognised symbol of that struggle (which makes Marxist assertions that we deny the need for collective class struggle deeply ironic). Louise Michel's action in 1883 solidified the association but the reason she waved the black flag was due to its use in the French labour protest, because it was the ”flag of strikes” and ” those who wanted to live by working or die by fighting”.

That is why the flag of anarchy is black. We would do well to remember that as it gives a clear idea where anarchism comes from, what it stands for, how we hope to get what we aim for.