June 13, 2021

Review: On Anarchism and the Black Revolution

Review: On Anarchism and the Black Revolution

From Black Agenda Report

“The principles of anarchism appear to be growing in some corners of the Black community,” due largely to the work and thought of former Black Panther Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin.

In our opening post, the Black Agenda Review described its objective to provide a longer historical and more explicitly educational perspective on Black liberation. We wanted to offer in-depth examinations of the political-economic and social-cultural issues that have emerged in the history of global Black struggles. For us, this includes a mixture of features (annotations of important Black political and cultural manifestos, roundtable discussions, long-form review essays, among other things) that help us explore and illuminate the theoretical and historical practices of Black resistance, sovereignty, and freedom. This week’s post, a long-form review essay on the complex history of anarchism in relation to Black liberation movements, serves as a follow up to Lorenzo Kom’boa   Ervin’s remarkable manifesto, “A Draft Proposal for the Founding of the International Working Peoples Association.” In an expansive essay, Dr. Peter James Hudson examines the  historical roots of the demonization of anarchism both by capitalist governments and communist movements alike and its adoption and deployment in the 1970s by Black radicals. This is an impressive work of recovery of the history of anarchism and Black liberation as well as a rejoinder to the persistent caricatures of anarchism and anarchists as violent and white. 

Dr.  Hudson is associate professor of African American Studies and History at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (Chicago, 2017).

On Anarchism and the Black Revolution

Peter James Hudson

For many on the Black left there is an enduring ignorance concerning the theory and practice of anarchism. This ignorance is born of two grotesque but resilient caricatures–a caricature of anarchism, and one of anarchists. In the first instance, anarchism is viewed less as a positive political philosophy than as an anti-political practice, one whose language is violence and whose ideology is chaos, mayhem, terrorism, and the wholesale annihilation of formal, bourgeois society. In the second instance, anarchists are seen as invariably, unrepentantly, and insufferably white. 

These caricatures of anarchism and anarchists find brute form in contemporary discussions and discourse surrounding Antifa. The representative of Antifa (commonly referred to through the Trumpist pronunciation “AnTEEfa,” rather than “Anti-FA”) is portrayed as a cartoonish arch-villain: a black-masked, graffiti spraying, Molotov-cocktail throwing white boy—the hoodie-wearing white street punk of nihilistic religion whose ritualistic ceremony marries wanton destruction of private property with irregular sneak attacks on the police. This vision of Antifa, and of that mysterious cult known as Black Bloc , is shared by both liberal and conservative commentators, both of whom conveniently forget that Antifa stands for “antifascist,” while neglecting to mention that the opposite of anti-fascist is, of course, fascist. 

The association of anarchism and anarchists with both whiteness and violence has its roots in anarchism’s origins in nineteenth century Europe. Yet it was only the latter category, that of violence, that received any notice at that time. As with other radical critiques of and alternatives to capitalism, anarchism came into being in response to the great societal transformations wrought by the emergence of industrial capitalism and, with it, the grim arrival of the European working classes. Anarchism’s fundamental principles are found in the root of the word itself, from the Greek anarchos, meaning “without a ruler.” Figures like Pierre-Joseph Prudhon in France and Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin in Russia wrote against class hierarchy, the authoritarian, exploitative, and anomic forces of capitalist society, and the violent, dispossessive tendencies of private property. 

The anarchists advocated libertarianism as the free and creative expression of the individual made possible by the removal of the restrictive and oppressive forces of church, state, and capital. This is not the present-day version of libertarianism associated with right-wing free market individualism lost in the fever dreams of crypto-currency speculation. It is a libertarianism whose ethical foundation is conjoined with mutuality, communalism, non-hierarchical social relations, and cooperative economics. Indeed, anarchists often drew inspiration from their view of the autonomous and collectivized pre-capitalist social worlds of the European peasant and they envisioned a world of shared abundance, excess, and wealth.

“The representative of Antifa  is portrayed as a cartoonish arch-villain: a black-masked, graffiti spraying, Molotov-cocktail throwing white boy.”

It is not surprising that establishment society feared anarchism because of the anarchist threat to their social order. Yet the anxiety surrounding anarchism was also shared by many on the European left, including Marxist-Leninists. Anarchists rejected not only the centralized, hierarchical model of the bureaucratic capitalist state, but also the democratic centralism of communist governments in formation. They viewed with suspicion the idea that the seizure of state power was a means towards the revolutionary transformation of society and they disdained the notion that the apotheosis of radical desire was in proletarian reform of bourgeois governmental bureaucracy. Instead, they advocated for autonomous communes, worker’s self-management, syndicalism , and radical, participatory democracy. 

At the same time, anarchists advocated direct action as an antidote to the ineffective but normalized channels of legitimate political participation, especially voting. They also often embraced militant political strategies that fell outside the politely repressive conventions of bourgeois democracy—including, if necessary, tactics of, yes, violence, especially if that violence was reclaimed from its monopoly by the state. While political violence was not shunned by anarchists, they, of course, are not the only political grouping to have used violence. In any case, their reputation for violence was burnished by a number of assassinations and other attacks against monarchical and bourgeois targets in Europe. Viewed as a threat to both liberal and Marxist-Leninist political ambition, anarchists were purged during the Bolshevik Revolution  and marginalized during the Spanish Civil War . In a pattern that continues today, many so-called progressives would rather cede power to conservative, even fascist, forces than find common cause with anarchists.

In the United States, the fear of anarchism and the association of anarchism with terrorism and violence emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This fear was tied to a nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment. There were traditions of “home-grown” anarchist thought in the US dating to the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, later anarchist communities in the US were mostly made up of recent working-class immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, many of them Jews, who occupied the lower rungs of the hierarchy of labor and the bottom tiers of not-yet whiteness. 

The perception of the anarchist as a purveyor of violence enabled the ruse for the quick trial, convictions, and executions of the Haymarket Martyrs  in Chicago in 1886. Yet it could also be argued that the US state used a series of incidents to permanently fuse anarchism with violence in the public imagination, demonizing it, delegitimizing it as a social and political force, and turning it into an inherently foreign and un-American ideology. These incidents include Russian-American writer Alexander Berkman’s attempted assassination of industrialist and Homestead Strike-breaker Henry Clay Frick in 1892; steelworker Leon Frank Czolgoz’s assassination of President William McKinley in Buffalo at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901; and the series of bombings across the US in May and June of 1919 attributed to “Galleanists,” the followers of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani. 

The latter incident prompted the first Red Scare in the United States, via the notorious Palmer Raids . Attorney General and presidential hopeful A. Mitchell Palmer, himself a target of the attacks, initiated a pogrom against anarchists and other radicals via the US Department of Justice’s newly-formed General Intelligence Division, which later became the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under chief investigator J. Edgar Hoover. The Palmer Raids saw the police beating of immigrants, the arrest and detention of thousands of alleged suspects, and the deportation of hundreds of people, including 249 political radicals – Russian anarchist Emma Goldman  among them. They were sent abroad on a ship dubbed the Red Ark.

“Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer initiated a pogrom against anarchists and other radicals.”

More recently, US anarchism has found form in the Situationist- and Dadaist-inspired agitprop of “Up Against the Wall Motherfucker ,” the actions of the Weather Underground , and the ecological direct action of the 1970s inspired by Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Anarchist activities can also be seen through Black Bloc actions  at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. And more recently, we see anarchist tendencies in some elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as in the “Capital Hill Autonomous Zone” (CHAZ) that was erected in Seattle in the wake of the protests against the murder of George Floyd and ongoing police repression. 

The perception of anarchism as a predominantly and particularly white movement certainly emerges from its origins in the radical maelstroms of nineteenth century Europe, and with the patterns of European immigration to the United States. Yet while there is no doubt that the history of anarchism has been largely Eurocentric and, in the case of individual anarchists, often racist, the whiteness of anarchism is as much historiographical as it is historical. That is, those who have written the history of anarchism and anthologized the vast archive of anarchist thought have largely written it into history as a white movement whose primary concerns were of the white left. 

Consider, for instance, some of the more celebrated contemporary figures of anarchist thought: linguist Noam Chomsky, Yale anarchist James Scott, anthropologist David Graeber, or eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin. Not only are they all white men – that fact is obvious and perhaps unremarkable. More importantly, their writings display a stunning indifference to the questions that have animated the history of Black struggles for sovereignty and freedom. 

In this body of work, questions of race are subordinate to class, if they are even raised at all, while the white working class is foregrounded as the heroic subject of history. The long histories of Black autonomous political and economic practice are overlooked, be it the forms of the maroon communities of the Americas, of post-emancipation free Black villages, of Black collective labor practices and cooperative economics, of institutions like the Black church, and of organizations like the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL ) or the League of Revolutionary Black Workers  or MOVE . The history of Haiti and the Haitian revolution as the modern world’s preeminent example of Black autonomy is of little significance. In white scholarly and activist representations of anarchist thought, the deep archive of anti-capitalist critiques that emerged in the traditions of Black nationalism and pan-Africanism are entirely ignored.

This is ridiculous. But we should not be surprised by this white indifference as it cycles us back to that perennial question concerning the relevance of white anarchist theory and practice to Black liberation.

The classic histories of anarchism and the important anthologies of anarchist writing rarely include Black, let alone non-white, thinkers and historical actors. One could easily wonder if the Black world has an historical existence from browsing such eloquent overviews of anarchist thinking such as George Woodcock’s Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas  or Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism: From Theory to Practice , or anthologies of anarchism including Woodcock’s The Anarchist Reader , Guerin’s classic No Gods, No Masters  or Marshall Shatz’ The Essential Works of Anarchism. While Woodcock’s Anarchism does have a concluding chapter on “various traditions” of anarchism, these traditions are a grab-bag of “Latin America, Northern Europe, Britain, and the United States,” all compressed into forty pages. Beyond well-known Black anarchist and radical labor organizer Lucy Parsons , neither Africa nor African Americans are mentioned in these collections while Caribbean histories of anarchism are represented by Spanish immigrants to the Spanish-speaking territories like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Mexico. 

“In white scholarly and activist representations of anarchist thought 

the deep archive of anti-capitalist critiques that emerged in the traditions of Black nationalism and pan-Africanism are entirely ignored.”

As an aside, the excellent studies of anarchism in Latin America and the Caribbean by figures including Ángel J. Cappelletti, Kirwin Schaeffer, John M. Hart, and Frank Fernández make no explicit mention of populations of African descent, nor of the particularities of white supremacy in Spain’s former American colonies. A rare exception here is historian Philip Howard’s Black Labor, White Sugar:  The Caribbean Braceros Struggle for Power in the Cuban Sugar Industry, 1910-1935. Howard makes the provocative argument that Haitian and Jamaican cane cutters in Cuba combined Garveyism with anarchism. 

In his introduction to the 1971 collection Anarchism Today, edited by David Apter and Andrew Joll, Apter (a political scientist who made his name studying postcolonial state formation in West Africa) suggestively wrote that anarchism “has darkened with time.” “Some of its power is black,” Apter continued. “The black flag now belongs to black people as well as others.” Apter provides no evidence of this “darkening” in Anarchism Today. Black people receive but a single mention in its pages, and that mention is in relation to the US New Left. Yet Apter’s comment does anticipate a transformation or shift during the 1970s in regards to the incorporation of, and engagement with, anarchist philosophy and practice among a cohort of Black writers, thinkers, activists, and intellectuals. Indeed, the late 1970s witnessed the flowering of what might be called the first golden age of a distinctive Black anarchism:  anarchist thought that emerged out of the specific political-economic and historical conditions of Black folk and that was, for the first time, reflected on and theorized by Black writers. 

Why the late 1970s? There are a number of reasons: the crisis of Black leadership following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and the increasing incorporation of a Black petit-bourgeois managerial class by capital and the US state. The co-option and destruction of Black grassroots movements like the Black Panther Party. The crises of neoliberalism, neocolonialism, and sovereignty in the newly-independent states of Africa and the Caribbean. The de-radicalization of Black intellectual work in its movement from the streets to the university through the institutionalization of Black Studies programs. Male violence and patriarchal authority within Black nationalist leadership and Black liberationist philosophy, as illuminated by Black feminist activists. The expansion of Black incarceration as part of the counter-revolution against the Black revolt of the 1960s. 

All of these factors contributed to the questioning of inherited models of Black political leadership and organization while initiating a search for new languages and theories of Black liberation. As a consequence, a handful of Black thinkers turned to anarchism. Many of them were former members of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. Most of them were incarcerated. They include Martin Sostre , Ashanti Alston, Kuwasi Balagoon, and Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin. 

“The black flag now belongs to black people as well as others.”

Lorenzo Kom’boa Irvin’s Anarchism and the Black Revolution is among the best-known monographs from this golden age of Black anarchism. First published in 1979, it was reissued in 1993 and is now available online through platforms including Libcom.org  and The Anarchist Library Anarchism and the Black Revolution is a short, though powerful – even startling – monograph that challenges many of the shibboleths of “white” anarchism, the received wisdom of Black Marxist thought, and the pieties of liberalism, white, Black or otherwise. It is also stunningly prescient. Its analysis and critiques of police violence and the threat of fascism are as important now as they were at the end of the 1970s. Perhaps more so. 

But Anarchism and the Black Revolution is also a model of radical hope. It refuses to dwell in the cynicism and nihilism that we see in the pessimistic visions of certain strains of contemporary Black thought, to hide behind the theoretical abstractions that obscure the concrete, historical-material analysis of contemporary conditions, or to indulge in the cosmetic frippery and ornamentation and performative posturing of contemporary academic Black Studies. Instead, Anarchism and the Black Revolution is a bold and idealistic blueprint for a society after capitalism and white supremacy, one that rearticulates the history of Black struggle through the prism of anti-authoritarian and libertarian ideas – and that provides a thoughtful rejoinder to the persistent caricatures of anarchism and anarchists as violent and white. 

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin’s path to anarchism is detailed in a 1978 issue of the journal The Black Flag: Organ of the Anarchist Black Cross. It is an incredible, dizzying story that, for the sake of space, I will not recount here. But it is a story of someone who, from his earliest days in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has always carried a spirit of anti-authoritarianism and a commitment to social justice – through his stints in the US military, to his time with SNCC and the Black Panthers, to the present. Ervin first encountered anarchist thought in the late summer of 1969. He was temporarily incarcerated in the Federal Detention Center in New York City after being captured by US authorities in Europe, where he had fled after hijacking a plane to Cuba. While detained, Ervin was introduced to the legendary Black Puerto Rican anarchist and prison activist Martin Sostre . Sostre told him how to survive in prison, explaining to Ervin his status as a political prisoner. He also gave  Ervin his first “short course in Anarchism.” 

“’Anarchism and the Black Revolution’ challenges many of the shibboleths of ‘white’ anarchism, the received wisdom of Black Marxist thought, and the pieties of liberalism.”

Sostre’s course, however, was short-lived. Ervin was soon transferred from New York City to Newman, Georgia. He was tried and convicted of hijacking, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He would spend much of the next decade in the United States Penitentiary at Marion , Illinois, the supermax facility with its notorious Control Unit . Ervin’s conversion to anarchism occurred during this period. International anarchist support groups adopted Ervin’s cause and began sending him anarchist literature and those first lessons in anarchism taught to him by Sostre began to make sense. 

Anarchism and the Black Revolution was one of four texts written by Ervin during his incarceration. With his fellow Marion inmates, Ervin also drafted a proposal for an anarchist Black Cross Network , an international prisoners support network whose actions were guided by a dedication to the eventual abolition of the entire prison system. He wrote a Manifesto for the International Anarchist movement , and he created Draft Proposal for an International Working Peoples Association, an organization inspired the 1883 Pittsburgh Manifesto  drafted by German anarchist Johan Most and his comrades who were part of what was called “The Black International.” All four texts were issued under the imprint of “Pages from Prison” and distributed by Anarchist Black Cross . They were published with the aid of the Horse and Goat People’s Affinity Group, a radical support organization housed at 339 Lafayette Street in the Lower East Side, a building known as the “Peace Pentagon,” that housed a number of anti-war and other radical organizations since the late 1960s. 

“Put simply,” writes Ervin in his introduction to Anarchism and the Black Revolution, “[anarchism] means that the people themselves rule, not governments, political parties, or self-appointed “leaders” in their name. Anarchism also stands for the self-determination of all oppressed peoples, and their right to struggle for freedom… by any means necessary.” Anarchism and the Black Revolution attempts to explain and expand this definition, while also dispelling many of the “lies and distortions” clouding our sense of what anarchism actually is. 

Serving as an introductory educational primer of anarchist thought, the latter pages of the book include both a one-page listing of radical organizations and non-authoritarian bookstores and publishers, as well as a practical glossary of keywords and terms in anarchist theory and practice. Ervin includes the typologies of anarchists—distinguishing between individualists, mutualists, collectivists, anarcho-syndicalists, and anarchist-communists—while outlining anarchist visions of the state, property, authority, and violence. Against the argument that the anarchist is a mere nihilist, he describes anarchist principles of organization, especially through practices of mutual aid, education, action, and unity. Yet more than a mere primer, Anarchism and the Black Revolution is a rich, hybrid text that is part manifesto, part theoretical treatise, and part an expansive radical blueprint for the revolutionary transformation of society. Indeed, while Anarchism and the Black Revolution is a theoretical text, it is also eminently practical; Ervin is less interested in Black dreams of freedom than he is in practices of Black sovereignty. 

The question of race, racism, and white-supremacy, especially in their relationship to capitalism, is critical to Ervin’s analysis. Ervin argues that racism is not only the primary obstacle to Black self-determination, but to working class solidarities across the lines of color. He describes racism as “a ruling class weapon,” and argues that the capitalist class “uses” racism as a strategy of divide and rule. Racial antagonism is fomented between Black and white workers to ensure competition for jobs, in the process driving down wages, smashing the possibility of radical alliance and resistance, and securing capitalist power and rule. In some senses, this is a fairly standard, Marxist account of racism’s function within capitalist society. It doesn’t give much weight to racism as a semi-autonomous force in society: that is, how do we explain the appeal of white identity and the embrace of racism by those whites who aren’t being used by the ruling class in the ways the white worker is? 

“Ervin is less interested in Black dreams of freedom than he is in practices of Black sovereignty.”

Yet Irvin also moves beyond an instrumentalist understanding of racism by arguing that racism is not only a “tool” of capitalism, but that it also provides the historical substratum through which capitalism emerged, and by which capitalism continues to function. “Based on historically uneven competition,” Ervin writes, “Capitalist exploitation is inherently racist.” It is in many ways a suggestive comment. Anarchism and the Black Revolution is by no means a treatise on the histories of race and capitalism. But his comment is important for understanding that racism, and what is today referred to as anti-Blackness, is not an eternal phenomenon that has marked the conditions of African people from the beginning of time. 

In any case, for Ervin, organizing is more important than origins. His theoretical understanding of how capitalism functions emerges from the demands of how to fight against it. He argues that resistance to capitalism must come through the development of what he calls “multi-national,” (that is, cross-racial) unity within the working class. But two further things must first occur. 

In the first instance, white workers must identify with and defend the rights, demands, and struggles of non-white workers. The white worker, writes Ervin, addressing himself to skeptical white anarchists, must be won over to “an anti-racist, class conscious position.” Part of these efforts to win over whites should come through an affirmative action program. At first glance, it is a surprising statement. But Ervin does not advocate for the development of the kind of affirmative action program that enshrines the privileged institutional access of the Black middle classes, and that, at the time Ervin was writing, was under threat by those accusing affirmative action of enacting “reverse racism.” Instead, he proposes what he calls a “multi-national working class Affirmative Action program.” In form, it is an affirmative action program that is practically a demand for reparations for working class peoples. Its call includes demands for free and open admissions to all educational institutions, full employment and full health care, the emancipation of political prisoners and the abolition of prisons, the development of a rank-and file union, and the ending of taxes on workers. 

“’Based on historically uneven competition,’ Ervin writes, ‘Capitalist exploitation is inherently racist.’”

The right to armed self-defense against racist attacks is also a part of Ervin’s affirmative action program, and the question of direct action and self-defense recurs throughout Anarchism and the Black Revolution. It should go without saying that this is not a call for wanton violence. Instead, Ervin draws on the likes of Malcolm X and anarchists such asBuenaventura Durruti  of Spain to promote both the autonomous defense of Black communities and proactive action against racist violence. “Fascism is not to be debated,” wrote Durruti, “it is to be smashed.” Following this, Ervin dismisses those liberal coddlers who have argued that the principles of free speech demand that Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other far-right political forces have a civic right to express themselves. Instead, Ervin argues that while these organizations may seem small, their growth potential is massive – and they often have the ideological support of conservative leaders, economists, philosophers, sociologists, and other academics who have rationalized and organized the implementation of white supremacy through racist tax regimes, the gutting of social services, and the crushing of municipalities by debt and financial encumbrance. Direct action against fascism is necessary, writes Ervin, and the fascists must be fought on both the ideological front and in the streets. Recent history continues to prove the tremendous foresight of Ervin’s analysis. 

The second major component to the class struggle articulated in Anarchism and the Black Revolution is the question of Black autonomy and self-determination. While a multi-national anti-racist organization and struggle is necessary, the key to this struggle is what Ervin calls “an independent Black revolutionary protest movement,” one that is led by the Black masses. Ervin’s invocation of Black self-determination emerges from his analysis of the stuttering of the Black freedom movement, especially due to “cooptation, repression, and betrayals,” the “counter-attack” on Black protest waged by the US state and capital (and, with it, the “resurgence of racism and conservatism”), as well as the accelerated economic underdevelopment and devastation of the Black community.

In response, Ervin calls for a new black protest movement that avoids the traps of charismatic and authoritarian Black middle class leadership. “The dependence of the Black movement on leaders and leadership (especially the Black Bourgeoisie) has led us into a dead end,” argues Ervin. Ervin writes against the idea that there is a Black “leadership vacuum,” arguing that such an analysis represents a “slavish psychology” by which Black folk put all of their faith and hope in vanguards, a talented tenth, or an elite cadre of leaders – “without considering what they [the masses] themselves are capable of doing.” Ervin’s work finds echo in that of CLR James and others who advocated for worker’s self-organization and the supreme faith in the political righteousness of the Black masses. 

“We need a new mass protest movement,” writes Ervin. “It is up to the Black masses to build it, not leaders or political parties. They cannot save us. We can only save ourselves.” For Irvin, this new movement would embrace a number of radical actions. He calls for a revival of A. Philip Randolph’s populist March on Washington Movement from 1941 to make demands from the US federal government for jobs, housing, education, a guaranteed income, and an end to racist and police attacks, and other demands. He calls for a boycott of US business, a Black tax boycott and a mass tax resistance movement, a Black rent strike, and a Black general strike, all of which are intended to bring the machinations of government to a halt. He also proposes “A Black Survival Program” based on community control of all business and financial institutions, large scale efforts to train Black people in the medical professions, the formation of community cooperatives and mutual aid banking societies, community control of housing, planning, and education, control of food production and distribution, the release of all Black political prisoners, the organizing of an independent self-sustaining economy to guarantee full employment for all our people, and, again, the formation of self-defense units.

“The fascists must be fought on both the ideological front and in the streets.”

All of these actions and activities come together under the umbrella of what Ervin calls the Black Commune. At the heart of the Black Commune is an idea of Black autonomy and self-determination through localized control of all aspects of the Black community. While Ervin appears to draw from the long history of Black nationalism in his notion of the Black Commune, its purpose was not to create separate states for the simple sake of separation. Instead, it is based on an idea of “dual power” by which the organization of a shadow government of the people would act, first, as a counter to the existing government, and second, as means to build community power that would weaken the official state until that time when conditions were ripe for revolution. Moreover, for Ervin, the Black Commune would not replicate the hierarchical, centralized, and bureaucratic structure of existing states. The Black Commune was not the white government in Black face. Instead, it would be organized through direct democracy, autonomous community councils, and, on the national level, the formation of a federation of independent Black communes across the United States.

In addition, the goal of the Black Commune was not to merely seize control of the political-economic organization of the Black community. Its function was also pedagogical and ideological. Drawing on George Jackson and Steve Biko, Ervin saw the Black Commune as contributing to “a Black revolutionary counter-culture” that could combat the saturated presence of liberal capitalist ideology within Black consciousness. “Our objective,” writes Ervin, “is to teach new Black social values of Black unity and struggle against the negative effects of white capitalist society and culture. To do that we must build a Black consciousness movement, and to struggle against the capitalist  slavemasters.” 

Critical to this new Black consciousness was the embrace of internationalism. From when he was a young recruit in the US military, Ervin’s politics were internationally-minded. He saw a connection between the Vietnam War and the state repression of the Watts Uprising, and understood that both were tied to the 1965 US invasion of the Dominican Republic, when 20,000 US troops flooded the Caribbean nation to ensure a government with left-wing sympathies would not come to power. Vietnam, Watts, and the Dominican Republic all represented imperialist attempts to choke the self-determination of oppressed peoples. Ervin’s understanding of these connections was eventually articulated through the anti-imperialist principles of anarchist thought. 

“At the heart of the Black Commune is an idea of Black autonomy and self-determination through localized control of all aspects of the Black community.”

“The Anarchist ideas lead logically to internationalism,” he wrote in Anarchism and the Black Revolution. But that support is not unconditional. Irvin is critical of those national liberation movements that use Marxist-Leninist ideology to cover over military dictatorship. He notes how insurgent governments, such as that of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, arrested ideological opponents on the left (including Maoists, anarchists, and others), while suppressing worker’s strikes. Ervin is as critical of Soviet and Chinese influence as he is of US and European imperialism. And while he supports national liberation, he does not support the nation-state. “As long as there are nation-states there will be war, tension, national enmity,” Ervin writes. As an alternative to the nation state, and to those organizations of states such as the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity, Ervin proposes an International Organization for Black Unity and Freedom. He describes this organization as “the Black Commune, exercising international Black political power.” Purged of political parties and states, the International would be composed of free Black people and societies, organizing on behalf of worker’s rights, against imperialism, agaisnt racism, and towards a non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian, and stateless society.

“Ervin is as critical of Soviet and Chinese influence as he is of US and European imperialism.”

Ervin’s plans in Anarchism and the Black Revolution are audacious, but they are guided by those eloquent fundamentals of anarchist thought: anti-authorarianism, a libertarian faith in the individual, a belief on the collective and consensus, and a hardcore commitment to democratic practice. While in the late 1970s, Irvin was one of but a handful of Black activists and writers to embrace, or even engage, with anarchist philosophy, today, there appears to be an increasing turn towards anarchism. Given the growing dissatisfaction with Black representational politics and in light of the unabashed corruption  of Black Lives Matters, Inc.,– as seen in the behaviors  of its “leaders” – the principles of anarchism appear to be growing in some corners of the Black community. This is especially true in the political practices and actions of those Black youth who have embraced abolition, mutual-aid, Black community autonomy, and leaderless, anti-authoritarian organizational models. There is also a growing intellectual interest in Black anarchism, as witnessed in the publication Black Rose Anarchist Federation’s publication of the important Black Anarchism: A Reader (which features Ervin’s work alongside that of of Lucy Parson, Kwasi Balagoon, and others), the inclusion of Ervin’s work in anarchist historian Robert Gordon’s massive compilations of anarchist thought, and through the publication of books such as William C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi’s The Anarchy of Blackness. A definitive edition of Anarchism and the Black Revolution will also be reissued in print by Pluto Press through their Black Thought Series. 

We may be witnessing the flowering of a second golden age of Black anarchism. If so, it is an age indebted to the writing and thought Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin.

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