Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940

Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940

The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism,
and Social Revolution

Steven Hirsch  & Lucien van der Walt (eds.)

Brill, Leiden, Netherlands/Boston, 2010


Review by Alex Bradshaw

Scholars Steven Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt have compiled a fine collection of left history in Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940. This volume counters the notion that anarchism and syndicalism are simply 19th century European phenomena, rather, anarchism and syndicalism flourished in what they call the “colonial” and “post-colonial” world.

While the volume concerns anarchists’ and syndicalists’ role in anti-imperialist struggles and union organizing, it also serves as an invaluable tool to shatter the notion that the history of socialism, as well as radical labor, is exclusive to Marxist-Leninism. Unfortunately, throughout the Western world, the history of socialism is often embedded in simplistic Cold War narratives centered on the USSR and its ally nation-states. “Socialism” is typically viewed as authoritarian, centralized, and top-down.

The volume also demonstrates that the history of the international labor movement is not simply a matter of workers demanding better conditions, it is also the history of organized, working-class communities agitating for social revolution to create a completely new society based on principles of solidarity, equity, and mutual aid.

Anarchism and Syndicalism Explained

This volume is scholarly and authored by an esteemed group of professors and researchers, but it is also accessible to those outside of the academy. Anarchism has been subject to many interpretations; however, Hirsch, van der Walt, et al, have something very specific in mind. They refer to anarchism as a political philosophy which “rejected capitalism, the state and hierarchy in general.” Anarchists seek a “democratic, egalitarian and stateless socialist order.” The editors also define syndicalism as “revolutionary trade unionism, centered on the view that revolutionary union action can establish a collectivized, worker-managed social order resting on union structures.” While many anarchists were also syndicalists, all syndicalists were not anarchists per se; likewise, all anarchists were not, and are not, syndicalists.

The Timeline’s Significance

Many readers may not be familiar with the terms identifying the “colonial” and “postcolonial” world. The editors define these terms  as “the regions of the world under the formal control of external powers, as well as the ex-colonies that were ostensibly independent social formations, but remained subject to a significant degree to informal imperial power influenced by colonial legacies.” More specifically, the research in the volume focuses on “Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe (with the exception of Ireland).”

The editors offer further analysis of why this is particularly significant for the period of 1870-1940. They state that, “By the early 20th century, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States ruled 90 percent of Africa, 57 percent of Asia, a quarter of the Americas, around half of East and Central Europe, and all of Polynesia.”

The aforementioned 1870-1940 timeline is historically one of “unmatched mass anarchist and syndicalist influence,” which is why the timeline was chosen for exploration. Below is a brief summation of themes and events found throughout Hirsch and van der Walt’s book.

Those chapters concerning Africa focus on Egyptian and South African anarchism and syndicalism. Anthony Gorman contributes a chapter on the internationalist character of anarchism in Egypt. Those fleeing from Italy from political persecution—as well as Italian workers coming to Egypt during the 1860s for modernization projects (the most notable likely being the construction of the Suez Canal), and other European anarchists— brought the anarchist movement to Egyptian soil. Gorman states anarcho-syndicalism in Egypt “resisted nationality, religion and race as the basis of its organization….”

Throughout the late 20th century, anarchists and nationalists competed for influence among the native working-class in Egypt. This, according to Gorman, was an awkward relationship. Nationalists favored the existence of the nation-state, whereas anarchists and syndicalists were fighting for a stateless socialist society. A common theme throughout—not only in Africa, but also in Asia, Latin America, Ireland, and Ukraine—is mentioned in Gorman’s chapter where he states that “nationalism and anarchism did share a common enemy, imperialism, and on more than one occasion became de facto allies in opposing it.”

In Egypt, the anarchists, syndicalists, and nationalists sometimes formed coalitions to fight the British, but in all the states mentioned, these groups did the same to fight the colonial powers—in some cases in armed conflict.   Lucien van der Walt’s chapter focuses on the anarchists and syndicalist movement in South Africa. Van der Walt makes the case that anarchists and syndicalists were pioneers in their rejection of racial discrimination at a time when most labor and social justice groups were not doing so. Like many movements discussed in the volume, van der Walt’s chapter argues that—through written word (newspapers), political organizations and, of course, unions—anarchists and syndicalists mobilized working-class people of color in South Africa. Van der Walt makes the case that the anarchist and syndicalist approach was to create “One Big Union” and steadily support working-class unification over racial discrimination. Further, the “One Big Union was to be the proletarian forge in which a common society embracing all, regardless of colour, would be created.”

Chapters on Asia focus on Korea, China, and Japan’s anarchist/syndicalist movements from roughly 1910-1940. Dongyuon Hwang’s chapter focuses on the nationalist character of the Korean struggle, with Korea’s notable colonial relationship with Japan. Japan was the colonial power in Korea from 1910 onward. Anarchists fought alongside nationalists in Korea, too, with a goal of independence, but also of creating a new egalitarian society. As Hwang states: “There is no doubt that independence was the primary, and immediate, goal of Korean anarchists, but it does not mean that it was their only, or ultimate, goal. They aimed not just to gain independence through a political movement, but also to achieve a social revolution based on anarchist principles.” Hwang also points to the importance of radicals and revolutionaries meeting in cities like Tokyo and Shanghai; for spaces where activists and students could exchange radical ideas, as well as find translated anarchist works in their native languages.

Arif Dirlik’s chapter concerning anarchism in China in the early 20th century corroborates Hwang’s findings. He states that, “Tokyo served as a location for radical education and activity that is quite reminiscent of the role played by London for radicals in Europe.” In this case, he is talking about radicals in China, who often were introduced to radical European ideas  in Tokyo.

While China’s socialist history usually focuses on Maoism (a form of state socialism associated with Marxist-Leninism, with a stronger emphasis on the peasantry’s role in revolution), in the early 20th century, it was anarchism that was “the dominant ideology during the first phase of socialism in Eastern Asia.” As in Africa, anarchists in China had a large impact on the Chinese labor movement. Many Chinese anarchists were deeply influenced by Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin—a prolific writer, activist, and natural scientist of the late 19th century.

The chapters covering the social history of anarchism and syndicalism in Latin America focus on three places: Peru, Brazil and the Caribbean. As Steven Hirsch’s chapter articulates, anarcho-syndicalism flourished in Peru within the early 20th century. Hirsch goes as far to state that due to the efforts of native Peruvians—as well as the work of immigrant radicals—anarcho-syndicalism “would become the dominant radical ideology of Peru’s fledgling labor movement.” Anarchist study groups—secondary to talented and charismatic activists like Manual Gonzalez—helped spread the ideas of anarchism and syndicalism to the working-class in Peru. The movement began to decline, according to Hirsch, in the late-1920s; however, the anarchist and syndicalist movement left a mark on social and labor movements from 1930 on in Peru.

Kirk Shaffer describes an anarchist “Caribbean network” throughout Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and even Spanish-speaking regions in the US. In Cuba, Havana was a city of particular interest and was regarded as a “hub” for Spanish-speaking anarchists in the region. Shaffer states that Havana was a crucial city to anarchists in the early 20th century: “Key to Havana’s central role as the network hub was the anarchist weekly newspaper Tierra (land), the longest running (1903-1914) and most widely circulated organ for communication and fundraising.”

In this we see a common theme among late 19th, early 20th century radicals—the importance of the newspaper and written word for communication between networks of leftists (in this case, anarchists). Cuba, in general, was regarded as a hub as the labor movement in Cuba in the late 19th century’s leadership was majority anarchist. Like China, this is a history relatively unknown because revolutionary left history of Cuba typically centers on state socialism and the ideology of Castro and his comrades (i.e., Marxist-Leninism).

Shaffer again points to a common theme throughout the book—the awkward tension between nationalists and anarchists, centering on the colonial relationship between Cuba and Spain. Shaffer states: “The outbreak of  war in 1895 found most anarchists in Cuba supporting the liberation struggle, seeing the conflict beyond ‘nationalist’ terms and instead viewing the conflict as an anti-colonial struggle for freedom against Spanish imperialism.” Again, we see anarchists and nationalists overlapping interests when it comes to opposing imperialism in the colonial world.

Other chapters concerning Latin America focus on Argentina and Brazil. Buenos Aires became “one of the world’s…great anarchist publishing centres, and Argentina became the only country to sustain two anarchist dailies.” Further, the “dominant labor federation” in Argentina in the early 20th century, the Regional Workers Federation of Argentina (the FORA)—boasting a membership of 250,000—was candidly anarchist and in structure. As the editors state, at the time: the FORA had “no significant rival centres.” Geoffroy de Laforcade writes: “Argentina was the main ‘port of entry’ of anarchist ideas and activists in late 19th century South America.”  Longshore, dockworkers and mariners in Argentina organized in a manner that was either explicitly or latently anarchist/syndicalist in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Like Argentina, Brazil had significant anarchist/syndicalist involvement in the labor movement. In Sao Paulo, they were active in many strikes and in the struggle for the eight-hour workday. Ediline Toledo and Luigi Biondi mention the Workers’ Federation of Sao Paulo (FOSP) which earned the approval of many anarchists and syndicalists. Further, FOSP was “the main local labour federation in the country between 1905 and 1912.” In fact, the authors state, it was the anarchist Giulio Sorelli (a carpenter as well) who helped bring FOSP to fruition with others. The anarchist Sorelli was FOSP’s “president for many years.”

This volume should be seen as a history of transnational radicals and visionaries, who saw the need to unite the entire international working-class to dismantle both capitalism and imperialism. While their aspirations have not been actualized, these movements planted seeds for future militant movements.



Alex Bradshaw is an editor for the Louisville, Kentucky-based FORsooth, a monthly anti-war newspaper.