Thursday, 27 July 2017

How African Dictators Corrupt European Politics (2012)

We have seen several curious reversals of the usual pecking order in world affairs regarding Africa’ status of late, not least of which have been the spectacle of Portugal begging for aid from its former colony Angola, and of European citizens relocating back to their former colonies, fleeing economic crisis in Europe for poorly-paid jobs in the African hinterland .
But there is a longer-lived and more secret relationship between Africa and Europe that overturns the conventional view of African presidents being corrupted by European aid-with-strings-attached; this is the phenomenon of la valise, “the suitcase” system of millions sent over decades by African dictators to corrupt the European political process. Seeing as how language differences divide common understanding between Francophone Africa and Anglophone Africa, the two largest colonial-language blocs, it is worth us here in the English-speaking part of the continent to examine this phenomenon so entrenched in Francophone African affairs – and now apparently spreading. The Center for French and Francophone Studies at Duke University in North Carolina hosted a debate on la valise on 5 October 2011 called “The Colonies Pay Back: Culture and Corruption in Franco-African Relations,” and this article comprises extracts from that debate.

Post-Colonial France, the “Suitcase Republic”

Philippe Bernard, the outgoing Le Monde correspondent for Africa, initiated the debate by noting that Robert Bourgi,  Gaullist French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s unofficial advisor, had in September 2011 accused former socialist President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who were in power from 1995-2007, of having received enormous bribes in the form of suitcases stuffed with cash, from five West and Central African states – the Congo, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Gabon – to fund Chirac’s campaign. In a later interview with Canal+, Bourgi claimed that the 1988 campaign of far-right candidate Jean-Marie le Pen of the National Front, had also been partly funded by the valise. Chirac and de Villepin have denied Bourgi’s claims.
According to the Telegraph’s retelling of the tale,  Bourgi claimed  in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche that he had personally “transported ‘tens of millions of francs’ each year, with the amounts going up in the run-up to French presidential elections – an intimation the cash was used to fund Mr Chirac's political campaigns. ‘I saw Chirac and Villepin count the money in front of me,’ he said. He alleged he regularly passed on bank notes from five African presidents: Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal [in power 2000-2012]; Blaise Campaoré of Burkina Faso [1987-today]; Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast [2000-2011]; Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo [1997-today] and Omar Bongo of Gabon [1967-2009], whom Mr Bourgi called ‘Papa’. Together, he alleged they contributed £6.2-million to Mr Chirac's successful 2002 presidential campaign. A sixth leader, President Obiang N’Guema of Equatorial Guinea [1979-today] allegedly was the last member to join the cash donor club,” until, Bourgi claimed, a nervous de Villepin brought the system to a halt in 2005. Bourgi claimed he had personally run the valise system for 25 years and in exchange, the African dictators were granted huge reductions in their debt to France once their sponsored candidate attained office in the Elysée.
Bernard said he believed the system had arisen out of the notion of “France-Afrique, the confusion of French and African interests. It has been a public secret since [African] liberation in the 1960s: in 1960/61, deals were signed that France will use its power to defend the [African] regimes and France will have exclusive access to African raw materials and the right of France to intervene militarily in case of threats to African national security. In the 1980s, the Gaullists [then in opposition against François Mitterand’s Socialist government] were similarly accused – that a percentage of Gabonese oil revenues were allegedly used to finance their campaigns – but proof and public testimony was lacking.”
Professor Stephen Smith, former Africa editor of Libération, and Bernard’s predecessor at Le Monde, recalled rumours that “money smuggled in by Africans to the French Prime Minister’s office in djembe drums. The office has no air-conditioning, so the thought of him standing there with his sleeves rolled up counting it all is amusing.” On a serious note, however, Smith recalled that in 1971, at the very start of a reign that only ended in 1993, it was said that the first President of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, had donated “bags of money” to the conservative Georges Pompidou government. There was, Smith said, “a long contuinuity of the practice from the Gaullists [Charles de Gaulle was in power 1959-1969] to [the rightist Republican Valéry] Giscard d’Estaing [1974-1981], a continuity of conservative governments,” who had been propped up by la valise: “This amounts to a post-colonial ‘informal state,’ not on paper, but in practice.” 
Remember that this period – the Fifth French Republic – was brought into being in 1958 by the crisis in France precipitated by the Algerian Liberation War. So we have half a century of African dictators, installed and propped up by French military power, who in turn propped up with African oil and other revenue, a string of conservative sister regimes in France – although Smith said that the valise system in the six countries also worked via French companies working in parallel in the former colonies: one paid the French conservative Gaullists; the other paid the French socialists and communists. Given France’s strategic position within Europe, its influence only matched by Germany and Britain, anyone able to buy the French Presidency in effect purchases huge influence in Europe itself – so progressive politics on both continents appear to have been bedeviled by these secret transactions.
Smith said that his first newspaper scoop on the secret practice regarding the shadowy character of Bourgi, was in 1995 for Libération when he wrote about the unprocedural write-off of Zaïrean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s debts: Mobutu “raised his little staff and I was afraid he would hit me! Robert Bourgi earned €600,000 from Mobuto to put out the fire – and he earned €1-million to stop a book that I was writing.”
Bourgi’s “accounting is pristine; he deals only in cash, so there is little to prove.” The bribe money was later deposited in South African or Lebanese bank accounts, Smith claimed. The reach of Bourgi’s unofficial power was considerable: Smith claimed that when Sarkozy wanted a rare photo-opportunity with South Africa’s now-reclusive and elderly Nelson Mandela, Bourgi simply phoned up “Papa,” Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who persuaded the old man to agree to fly to Paris for the meeting in 2007.

The Suitcase System Expands

Prof Achille Membe, a specialist in post-colonial Africa, responded that the valise system was one of “mutual corruption” that has “shackled France and Africa for decades”: “The relationship is not only corrupt in terms of money… It’s a deeper form of cultural corruption that has emasculated somewhat African civil societies. In terms of the future, France still has military bases in Africa and can kick out a Gbagbo. But when France has to pay a heavy price [for intervention], it will think twice.”
Bernard said that as France’s grip on the African continent started to be eclipsed militarily (by the USA in particular ), in terms of the Francophone African CFA currency which is linked to the embattled Euro, in terms of French companies losing their exclusive relationships with African regimes as the International Monetary Fund took the reins in many countries and as Chinese, Brazilian and Indian investment poured into the continent, Sarkozy wanted the “network of go-betweens” such as Bourgi, who had “operated as a parallel diplomat,” to end.
Smith agreed that France now made more money from its relations with Anglophone Africa – South Africa and Kenya in particular – than it did from its former colonies, but warned that “now you’ve got a multiplication of the French exceptionalist models: China’s Africa relationship is as corrupt as the French; the French preserve and privilege has now become globalised.” Membe added that in his view, the waning of the French star in Africa – despite French remaining a dominant African language, and despite the existence of an African Diaspora literati in France – was that France itself “has entered a process of re-provincialising,” of monocultural conservatism and retreat from world affairs.
Membe said that “Robert Bourgi’s ‘revelations’ weren’t revelations in Africa. In Francophone Africa, this hasn’t been perceived as a scandal” because the prevailing cynicism about Franco-African relations was underscored by a long-term trend of the decline of the importance of France to its former colonies: “Geography is no longer centred on Paris… Robert Bourgi and others are the last spasms of a dead proposition, something that is on its knees, no longer historical but anecdotal… France will become a parenthesis.”
But it is very far from clear whether the valise system has indeed come to an end and lost its ability to shape African history. Smith said that Sarkozy’s own reputation was in doubt as he had written off 40% of the debts of Congo and of Gabon – whereas Chirac had capped the write-offs at only 8%, so suspected payments to Sarkozy would have been “a good investment by African leaders.” If Sarkozy is also involved, then Bourgi’s end-game in speaking out about the valise system after 25 years – and claiming it ended with Chirac – is clearly not aimed at tarnishing Chirac, who is a dying man and a spent political force, but rather to threaten Sarkozy while he is still President, forcing him to allow Bourgi to retire smoothly, without fear of prosecution, aged 67, to his newly-purchased mansion in Corsica.
Smith said the roots of the system lay in the fact that “when Europeans came to Africa, they ‘unbuttoned’ themselves,” initiating the corrupt relationship. But it takes two to tango, so what of the agency of African leaders themselves? “If I was an African leader today,” Smith admitted, “I’d still ‘invest’ in France because the United Nations, IMF etc will turn to France when they need assistance in Africa – despite it having lost leverage as a one-stop centre – so African leaders’ choices will still count.”
It is clear the suitcase system will continue, although likely spreading to include several newly invested powers – the USA, China, Brazil, India and South Africa – and ironically, with continental growth at 5.5%, peripheral Africa’s ability to influence and corrupt political affairs in the metropole may well even increase.


Monday, 17 July 2017

South Asian Anarchism: Paths to Praxis

Now that I have 400,000 words down on Wildfire with the completion of the sections dealing with South Asia, I thought it worthwhile revisiting two brilliant books on the topic. This is an updated version of the previous Anarkismo article of 2012, and includes details on the contemporary South Asian anarchist movement which were not covered in the original article.

South Asian Anarchism: Paths to Praxis

Meditations on Maia Ramnath’s Decolonizing Anarchism: an Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle (AK Press, USA, 2012) and her Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire (California World History Library, USA, 2011) – by Michael Schmidt, co-author with Lucien van der Walt of Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, Counter-power Vol.1  (AK Press, USA, 2009), and author of Cartographie de l’anarchisme révolutionnaire (Lux Éditeur, Canada, 2012). The original piece was kindly edited by van der Walt - but the revision is my own.

What the Institute for Anarchist Studies’ Maia Ramnath has achieved with these two books whose angles of approach differ yet which form companion volumes in that they intersect on the little-known anarchist movement of South Asia, is a breathtaking, sorely-needed re-envisioning of anarchism’s forgotten organisational strength in the colonial world which points to its great potential to pragmatically combat imperialism today.

Anarchism’s Anti-imperialism Enabled its Global Reach

To paint the backdrop to Ramnath’s work, we need to break with conventional anarchist histories. Lucien van der Walt and Steven Hirsch’s Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Post-Colonial World (2010) states: “The First International provided the womb in which the anarchist movement emerged, but the formal meetings of the International, its press, and its debates were located within the body of a dynamic global working class and peasant network. Anarchism had an organised presence in Argentina, Cuba, Egypt and Mexico from the 1870s, followed by Ireland, South Africa and Ukraine in the 1880s. The first anarchist-led, syndicalist, unions outside of Spain (the Spanish Regional Workers’ Federation, 1870) and the USA (the Central Labor Union, 1884) were Mexico’s General Congress of Mexican Workers (1876) and Cuba’s Workers’ Circle (1887). These were the immediate ancestors of the better known syndicalist unions that emerged globally from the 1890s onwards. To put it another way, anarchism was not a West European doctrine that diffused outwards, perfectly formed, to a passive ‘periphery.’ Rather, the movement emerged simultaneously and transnationally, created by interlinked activists on [four] continents – a pattern of inter-connection, exchange and sharing, rooted in ‘informal internationalism,’ which would persist into the 1940s and beyond.” They concluded that to “speak of discrete ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ anarchist and syndicalist movements’” as is common in contemporary anarchist discourse, “would be misleading and inaccurate.”
It cannot be overemphasised how for the first 50 years of its existence as a proletarian mass movement since its origin in the First International, the anarchist movement often entrenched itself far more deeply in the colonies of the imperialist powers and in those parts of the world still shackled by post-colonial regimes than in its better-known Western heartlands like France or Spain. Until Lenin, Marxism had almost nothing to offer on the national question in the colonies, and until Mao, who had been an anarchist in his youth, neither did Marxism have anything to offer the peasantry in such regions – regions that Marx and Engels, speaking as de facto German supremacists from the high tower of German capitalism, dismissed in their Communist Manifesto (1848) as the “barbarian and semi-barbarian countries.” Instead, Marxism stressed the virtues of capitalism (and even imperialism) as an onerous, yet necessary stepping stone to socialism. Engels summed up their devastating position in an article entitled Democratic Pan-Slavism in their Neue Rheinische Zeitung of 14 February 1849: the United States’ annexation of Texas in 1845 and invasion of Mexico in 1846 in which Mexico lost 40% of its territory were applauded as they had been “waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilisation,” as “splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it” by “the energetic Yankees” who would “for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilisation…” So, “the ‘independence’ of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in some places ‘justice’ and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?” By this racial argument of the “iron reality” of inherent national virility giving rise to laudable capitalist overmastery, Engels said the failure of the Slavic nations during the 1848 Pan-European Revolt to throw off their Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian yokes, demonstrated not only their ethnic unfitness for independence, but that they were in fact “counter-revolutionary” nations deserving of “the most determined use of terror” to suppress them. 
It reads chillingly like a foreshadowing of the Nazis’ racial nationalist arguments for the use of terror against the Slavs during their East European conquest. Engels’ abysmal article had been written in response to Mikhail Bakunin’s Appeal to the Slavs by a Russian Patriot in which he – at that stage not yet an anarchist – had by stark contrast argued that the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary camps were divided not by nationality or stage of capitalist development, but by class. In 1848, revolutionary class consciousness had expressed itself as a “cry of sympathy and love for all the oppressed nationalities”. Urging the Slavic popular classes to “extend your had to the German people, but not to the… petit bourgeois Germans who rejoice at each misfortune that befalls the Slavs,” Bakunin concluded that there were “two grand questions spontaneously posed in the first days of the [1848] spring… the social emancipation of the masses and the liberation of the oppressed nations.” 
By 1873, when Bakunin, now unashamedly anarchist, threw down the gauntlet to imperialism, writing that “Two-thirds of humanity, 800 million Asiatics, asleep in their servitude, will necessarily awaken and begin to move,” the newly-minted anarchist movement was engaging directly and repeatedly with the challenges of imperialism, colonialism, national liberation movements, and post-colonial regimes. So it was that staunchly anti-imperialist anarchism and its emergent revolutionary unionist strategy, syndicalism – and not pro-imperialist Marxism – that rose to often hegemonic dominance of the union centres of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay in the early 1900s, almost every significant economy and population concentration in post-colonial Latin America. In six of these countries, anarchists mounted attempts at revolution; in Cuba and Mexico, they played a key role in the successful overthrow of reactionary regimes; while in Mexico and Nicaragua they deeply influenced significant experiments in large-scale revolutionary agrarian social construction. 
The anarchist movement also established smaller syndicalist unions in colonial and semi-colonial territories as diverse as Algeria, Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Korea, Malaya (Malaysia), New Zealand, North and South Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively), the Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, South Africa, South-West Africa (Namibia), and Venezuela – and built crucial radical networks in the colonial and post-colonial  world: East Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Central America, the Caribbean, South-East Asia, and Ramnath’s chosen terrain, the South Asian sub-continent. In recent years, there have been several attempts to take on the huge task of researching and reintroducing anarchists, syndicalists and a broader activist public to this neglected anti-authoritarian counter-imperialist tradition: Lucien van der Walt’s and my two-volume Counter-power project is one global overview; the book edited by van der Walt and Hirsch is another; and there are important new regional studies such as Ilham Khuri-Makdisi’s, Levantine Trajectories: the Formulation and Dissemination of Radical Ideas in and between Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria 1860-1914 (2003), and Benedict Anderson’s study of the Philippines, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination (2005).

South Asia: the Gap in the Record

But so far, research into historical anarchism and syndicalism in South Asia (in Ramnath’s pre-Partition terminology, India) has been lacking. In part this is because it was an immensely fragmented sub-continent, with three imperialist powers, Britain, France and Portugal, directly asserting dominance over a multiplicity of principalities and other indigenous power-structures, often integrated into the European empires through alliances and indirect rule, a patchwork not unlike Germany prior to Prussian expansion in the mid-19th Century: Ramnath calls India’s pre-colonial structures “a range of overlapping, segmentary, sovereign units oriented towards different centers”. This “beehive” polity was further fractured and complicated by religion, language, colour, and caste, so it is arguably difficult to scent the anarchist idea and its diffusions in such a potpourri. 
Then again, van der Walt and my experience in researching Counter-power over 12 years has suggested that the lack of knowledge of the Indian anarchist movement is probably simply because (until Ramnath), no-one was looking for signs of its presence. While the history of Indian Marxism has been well documented, the anarchists have been ignored, or conflated with the very different Gandhians. For example, it was obvious to us that the strength of the French anarchist movement in the first half of the 20th Century definitely implied that there must have been an anarchist or syndicalist presence or impact on the French colonial port enclave of Pondicherry; and indeed Ramnath now confirms that Pondicherry was at least a base for anarchist-sympathetic Indian militants. 
There were, of course, very real structural obstacles to the diffusion of anarchism and syndicalism in colonial South Asia. Much of India was pre-industrial, even semi-feudal; and while there was a large mass of landless labourers, capitalism had a limited impact. Despite the misrepresentation of anarchism and syndicalism in mainstream Marxist writings as a refuge of the declining artisanal classes, and as a revolt against modernity, it was primarily in the world’s industrial cities – Chicago, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Valparaíso, São Paulo, Veracruz, Glasgow, Barcelona, Essen, Turin, Yekaterinoslav (Dnipropetrovs’k), St Petersburg, Cairo, Johannesburg, Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou), Yokohama, Sydney and so forth – that the movement raised strongholds: the ports, slums, mines, plantations and factories were its fields of germination; and it was the shipping lanes and railways that were its vectors. Its agrarian experiments were also centred on regions where old agrarian orders were being shattered by imperialism, capitalism and the modern state, like Morelos and Pueblo in Mexico, Fukien in China, Shinmin in Manchuria, Aragon, Valencia and Andalusia in Spain, Patagonia in Argentina, and Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine. So in some respects, India’s colonial fragmentation and level of development can be seen as similar to contemporary West Africa, where syndicalist unions only sprung up in the 1990s in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. 
Yet India was also very much part of the modern world, its older systems being transformed by imperialism as well as the rising local bourgeoisie; the “jewel” of the British Empire, it was locked into late nineteenth century globalisation as a source of cheap labour (including a large Diaspora of indentured migrants), raw materials and mass markets; Indian sailors were integral to the British fleets and Indian workers and peasants were integral to British industry; Indian workers and intellectuals resident in the West were heavily involved in radical milieus and alliances.  So I am fairly certain, given that syndicalism was propagated incessantly in the pre- and inter-war period by Indian revolutionaries, and given their links to the British working class, the leading edge of which in the pre-war period was syndicalist, that someone actively looking for de facto syndicalist unions in India’s port cities would unearth something of interest.

Introducing Ramnath’s Books

Briefly, Decolonizing Anarchism looks through what Ramnath calls “the stereoscopic lenses of anarchism and anticolonialism” for both explicitly anarchist as well as less explicitly libertarian socialist approaches, in the words and deeds of a wide range of local thinkers and activists, from the Bengali terrorists of the early 1900s, to the Gandhian decentralists of the mid-century Independence era, and to the non-partisan social movements of today. This is an important recovery of a tradition that rejected the statism of both the Indian National Congress, and of Communist traditions, and that raises important questions about the trajectory of Indian anti-imperialism. 
Her Haj to Utopia explores the closest thing that colonial-era India had to an explicitly anarchist-influenced sub-continental and in fact international organisation, the Ghadar (Mutiny) Party. This took its name from the 1857 “Mutiny” against British rule, an uprising revered by Indian revolutionaries of all ideologies, as reflected in Ghadar’s fused and phased mixture of syndicalism, Marxism, nationalism, radical republicanism, and pan-Islamicism. The two books intersect in the figure of Ghadar Party founder Lala Har Dayal (1884?- 1939), a globe-hopping, ascetic Bakuninist revolutionary and industrial syndicalist, secretary of the Oakland, California, branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and founder of the Bakunin Institute near that city. Har Dayal is of interest to van der Walt and I, in writing the South Asian section of Counter-power’s narrative history volume Global Fire because he was explicitly anarchist and syndicalist and because he was a true internationalist, building a world-spanning liberation movement that not only established roots in Hindustan and Punjab, but which linked radicals within the Indian Diaspora as far afield as Afghanistan, British East Africa (Uganda and Kenya), British Guiana (Guiana), Burma, Canada, China, Fiji, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaya (Malaysia), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Panama, the Philippines, Siam (Thailand), Singapore, South Africa, and the USA, with Ghadarites remaining active in (for example) colonial Kenya into the 1950s.

Lala Har Dayal

Oddly, Ramnath often uses the formulation “Western anarchism” – by which she says she means a Western conception of anarchism, rather than a geographic delimitation. Yet her own work underlines the point that anarchism/syndicalism was a universal and universalist movement, neither confined to nor centred on the West, a movement sprung transnationally and deeply rooted across the world. Of course, it adapted to local and regional situations – anarchism in the Peruvian indigenous movement was not identical to anarchism in the rural Vlassovden in Bulgaria, or amongst the Burakumin outcaste in Japan (this latter having implications for the Dalit outcaste of India) – but all of these shared core features and ideas. Anarchism in South Asia is a small but important link in the vast networks of anarchism across the colonial and postcolonial world. I feel Ramnath could have benefited from a deeper knowledge of the movement’s historical trajectories across and implantation in colonial Asia, not least in China, Manchuria, Korea, Hong Kong, Formosa (Taiwan), Malaya (Malaysia), the Philippines, and the territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina (together, Vietnam) – but then our Global Fire [now renamed Wildfire] is not yet published. 
Lucien van der Walt and my books have challenged the narrow, North Atlanticist bias of most anarchist historiography, and were written from such a perspective because we live in post-colonial Africa, and we needed to rediscover and re-establish the legitimacy of the anarchist/syndicalist praxis in our own region – where, for example, syndicalists built the what was probably the first union amongst Indian workers in British colonial Africa in Durban, South Africa, in 1917 on the IWW model, and where we work alongside Indian Diasporic militants today. It is hugely to Ramnath’s credit that the implications of her work in restoring to us the contemporary relevance of South Asian libertarian socialism far exceed her own objectives. Despite her location in the imperialist USA, her motivations appear to be similar to our own: a rediscovery of her own people’s place in anti-authoritarian history. And despite the fact that our approach favours what David Graeber calls “big-A anarchism” – the organised, explicitly anarchist movement of class struggle – and hers what he calls “small-a anarchism” – the broader range of libertarian and anarchist-influenced oppositional movements – our objectives coincide; taken together, her and our trajectories amount to a Haj, a political-intellectual pilgrimage, towards recovering a viable anarchist anti-imperialist praxis.

Reassessing Gandhi’s “Libertarianism”

Just as she has introduced us to the details of the life of the ubiquitous figure of Mandayam Parthasarathi Tirumal “MPT” Acharya (1887-1954), a life-long anarchist, and, ironically, Lenin’s delegate to the Ghadar-founded “Provisional Indian Government” in Kabul, so we hope to introduce her to ethnic Indian revolutionary syndicalists such as Bernard Lazarus Emanuel Sigamoney (1888-1963) of the IWW-styled Indian Workers’ Industrial Union in Durban. In many respects, we have walked the same paths, for we too needed to assess the Bengali terrorists who interacted with British anarchists like Guy Aldred, to ascertain whether they were ever convinced by anarchism, beyond the simple and dangerous glamour of “propaganda by the deed”.  We too have weighed up whether Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) can be claimed – as in Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible: a History of Anarchism (2008), a magisterial work, yet flawed in its definitions – as “the outstanding libertarian in India earlier this century”.  This same argument has been made by the late Geoffrey Ostergaard, who called the Gandhians “gentle anarchists”.

MPT Acharya

Ramnath writes of Gandhi that he “harboured a deep distaste for the institution of the state”. This is unquestionable and it is important to recall that there was an anti-statist strand in Indian anti-colonialism. Yet anarchism is more than simply anti-statism: it is libertarian socialist, born of the modern working class. Gandhi’s anti-statism was really a parochial agrarianism and Ramnath is correct to group him with the “romantic countermodernists”; it never translated into a real vision of national liberation without the state as its vehicle, and never had a real programmatic impact on the Congress movement. Ramnath is more convincing than Marshall in showing the libertarian socialist nature of Sarvodaya, the Gandhi-influenced self-rule movement of Jayaprakash “JP” Narayan (1902-1979). 
Gandhian Sarvodaya falls outside of the anarchist current, but initially appears, like anarchism, to be part of the larger libertarian socialist stream within which one finds the likes of council communism. There are some parallels between Gandhi’s vision of “a decentralized federation of autonomous village republics” and the anarchist vision of a world of worker and community councils. Yet this should not be overstated. Gandhi’s rejection of Western capitalist modernity and industrialism has libertarian elements, but Ramnath perhaps goes too far to conclude that he had a clear “anti-capitalist social vision” that could create a new, emancipatory, world – a world in which modernity is recast as libertarian socialism by the popular classes. By her own account, Gandhi’s opposition to both British and Indian capital seems simply romantic, anti-modern and anti-industrial, a rejection of the blight on the Indian landscape of what William Blake called the “dark Satanic mills”. Absent is a real vision of opposing the exploitative mode of production servicing a parasitic class, of seeing the problem with modern technology as lying not in the technology itself, but in its abuse by that class.
Gandhi’s libertarianism leads easily into right wing romanticism. Ramnath admits this, and is unusually frank in noting that there are strands in the Indian anti-colonial matrix that can provide the seed-bed from which both leftist and rightist flowers may sprout. As she notes in Decolonizing Anarchism, “it is a slippery slope from the praise of a völkisch spirit to a mysticism of blood and soil, to chauvinism and fascism”. Although her example of that French prophet of irrationalism and precipitate violent action, Georges Sorel, overinflates his influence on the syndicalist workers’ movement (he was uninvolved and marginal), she is correct in saying that “certain [historical] situations create openings for both right and left responses, and, even more importantly, that the “rejection of certain (rational, industrial, or disciplinary) elements of modernity, became for Indian extremists and Russian populists a proudly self-essentializing rejection of Western elements”, and constituted “a crucial evolutionary node, from which Right and Left branchings were possible.” 
This contradiction is at the very heart of the Gandhian Sarvodaya movement. On the one hand, it has a healthy distrust of the state. On the other, it retains archaic rights and privileges, traditional village hierarchies and paternalistic landlordism – in line with Gandhi’s own “refusal to endorse the class war or repudiate the caste system”. In practice, Ramnath warns that the traditional panchayat “village republic” system from which Sarvodaya draws its legitimacy “is far from emancipatory… women who hold seats are frequently chosen more for their potential as puppets than as leaders.” By contrast, anarchist agrarian revolutionaries like the Magónista Praxedis Guerrero fought and died to end the gendered class system, and to create genuinely free rural worlds, free of feudalism and patriarchy as well as capitalism – not to revert to feudalism over capitalism. Gandhi’s embrace of caste, landlordism, and opposition to modern technologies that can end hunger and backbreaking labour, is diametrically opposed to anarchist egalitarianism. 
Moreover, the mainstream of the anarchist tradition is rationalist, and thus opposed to the state-bulwarking mystification of most organised religion, whereas Gandhian Sarvodaya explicitly promoted Hinduism as part of its uncritical embrace of traditionalism. So what do we make of Gandhi himself? Speaking plainly, I do not like Gandhi because I am a militant anti-militarist who believes that pacifism enables militarism. I am very suspicious of Gandhi’s central role in midwifing the Indian state. On balance, in his völkisch nationalist decentralism, I would argue for him to be seen as something of a forebearer of “national anarchism,” that strange and noxious hybrid of recent years. Misdiagnosed by most anarchists as fascist, “national anarchism” fuses radical decentralism, anti-hegemonic anti-statism (and often anti-capitalism), with a strong self-determinist thrust that stresses cultural-ethnic homogeneity with a traditional past justifying a radical future; this is hardly “fascism” or a rebranding of “fascism,” for what is fascism without the state, hierarchy and class, authoritarianism, and the führer-principle? It is suffice to say that "national-anarchism" is derived from fascism, but diverted from it to include new elements in a syncretic racist mixture that, I argue, Gandhi anticipated.
Turning to the Ghadar movement: besides unalloyed anarchist and syndicalist national liberation figures such as Nestor Makhno (1888-1934) of the Ukraine, Shin Chae’ho (1880-1936) of Korea, Mikhail Gerdzhikov (1877-1947) of Bulgaria, and Leandré Valero (1923-2011) of Algeria, Ghadar can be located within a larger current of anti-colonial movements that were heavily influenced by anarchism, yet not entirely anarchist in that they were influenced by a mixture of beliefs current in their times. For example, Augusto Sandino (1895-1934) of Nicaragua, was influenced by a mélange of IWW-styled industrial syndicalism, ethnic nationalism, and mysticism. Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940) of Vietnam was influenced by anarchism, radical republicanism and, for temporary tactical reasons, was a supporter of the installation of a Vietnamese monarchy. Clements Kadalie (1896-1951) in South Africa drew on the IWW as well as liberalism and Garveyism to organise workers.
In Haj to Utopia, Ramnath notes that “Ghadar was the fruit of a very particular synthesis; of populations, of issues, of contextual frames, and of ideological elements. It is precisely the richness of this combination that enabled it to play the role of missing generation in the genealogy of Indian radicalism, and of medium of translation among co-existing movement discourses.” Likewise, in South Africa, through figures like Thibedi William “TW” Thibedi (1888-1960) we can trace a vector of revolutionary syndicalism from the Industrial Workers of Africa, into the early Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), and into Kadalie’s Industrial and Commercial Union which established an organisational presence in the British colonies as far afield as North Rhodesia (Zambia), that survived into the 1950s in South Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).  

Three South Asian Anarchist-influenced Movements

What is of interest to van der Walt and I is not so much the ideas of individual Indian libertarian socialists – where these are legitimately identified – but rather whether those ideas motivated any mass movements; broadly because anarchism is only relevant if it escapes ivory towers and self-absorbed radical ghettoes and organises the popular classes, that is, the working class, poor and peasantry; and narrowly because it is important in engaging with ethnic Indian militants today to know of historic Indian anarchism and anarchist-influenced currents. So it is here that both the pre-war Ghadar and post-independence Sarvodaya movements need to be assessed in their own right as living social instruments that developed beyond their founders’ ideas, and also – and this is important – to learn from both their successes and failures. Of Ghadar, Ramnath argues in Haj to Utopia that it was not only a party, but also “a movement, referring to an idea, a sensibility and a set of ideological commitments that took wing – or rather, took ship – exuberantly outrunning their originators’ control.” The same can also be said of Sarvodaya. So what are we to say about Ghadar and Sarvodaya as organisational tendencies, in terms of their practices which overspilled the original visions of Har Dayal and Gandhi? 

a) Pre-Independence: Ghadar Party

Ghadar Party poster

For both movements, the question is inflected with shifts of emphasis over their decades of development, but in the case of Ghadar, its anarchist provenance is clearer and Ramnath argues that this was a very coherent movement: “though many observers and historians have tended to dismiss Ghadar’s political orientation as an untheorized hodgepodge, I believe we can perceive within Ghadarite words and deeds an eclectic and evolving, yet consistently radical program.” She argues, for example, that Ghadar’s “blending of political libertarianism and economic socialism, together with a persistent tendency toward romantic revolutionism, and within their specific context a marked antigovernment bent, is why one may argue that the Ghadar movement’s alleged incoherence is actually quite legible through a logic of anarchism… not only did Ghadar join the impulses towards class struggle and civil rights with anticolonialism, it also managed to combine commitments to both liberty and equality. Initially drawing sustenance from both utopian socialism and libertarian thought, their critique of capitalism and of liberalism’s racial double standard gained increasingly systematic articulation in the course of the [First World] war and the world political shifts in its aftermath.” 
Ghadar’s “indictment of tyranny and oppression was on principle globally applicable, even while generated by a historically specific situation and inflected in culturally specific terms; moreover they increasingly envisaged a comprehensive social and economic restructuring for postcolonial India rather than a mere handing over of the existing governmental institutions.” A “proper Ghadarite” was, she states, anti-colonial, passionately patriotic, internationalist, secularist, modernist, radically democratic, republican, anti-capitalist, militantly revolutionist, and “in temperament, audacious, dedicated, courageous unto death” – mostly virtues that can honestly be ascribed to all real revolutionary socialists, including the anarchists – but with Ghadar’s aim being “a free Indian democratic-republican socialist federation, and an end to all forms of economic and imperial slavery anywhere in the world.” Thus, despite its heterodox sources of inspiration, Ghadar, in its decentralist, egalitarian, free socialist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and universalist yet culturally-sensitive vision, closely approximated “big-A” anarchism. 
As an organisational model, she says that “Ghadar is often positioned as a transitional phase between two modes of revolutionary struggle, namely, the conspiratorial secret society model and the mass organizational model, which is also to say the voluntarist and structuralist theories of precipitating change.” However, she writes, Ghadar was a distinctly different and “relatively stable mode” that involved a necessary articulation between the two other modes, between what we would call the specific organisation (of tendency) and the mass organisation (of class).
To expand: in most sub-revolutionary situations, specific anarchist organisations organised workers at the critical fulcrum of exploitation by creating syndicalist unions, unions to defend the working class but with revolutionary objectives. As these movements of counter-power developed, they went beyond the factory gates, to build revolutionary class fronts embracing (for example) rent strikes, neighbourhood assemblies, subsistence food-gardens, popular education, proletarian arts, and popular councils (soviets, we might say, although that term has been severely abused by awful regimes). As this grassroots counter-power and counter-culture became a significant threat to the ruling classes, armed formations (militia, guerrilla forces, or even subversive cells within the official army and navy) were often formed to defend the people’s gains. And lastly, at this matured, the productive, distributive, deliberative, educational, cultural and defensive organs of counter-power would be linked into regional and national assemblies of mandated delegates. This enabled the co-ordination of a social revolution over a large territory, and the transformation of counter-power into the organised democratic control of society by the popular classes. This was the ideal route, aspired to by most anarchist movements; we can see elements of it in the Ghadar sensibility and aspirations too. 
But the world does not always work as planned, of course, and sometimes anarchists, like the Bulgarians who fought for the liberation of Macedonia from Ottoman imperialism in 1903, were forced by living under imperialist circumstances into different routes – in this case, creating popular guerrilla formations first in order to wage anti-colonial war, only paying attention to industrial organisation in subsequent years. This is similar to the path taken by Ghadar, which focused on military and propaganda work, including the subversion of Indian colonial troops (Indian servicemen returning home from defending the British Empire were receptive to Ghadarite stresses on the contractions between their sacrifice and their conditions at home). This was clearly informed not only by the insurrectionary tendencies of the day (including strands of anarchism), but also the objective difficulties of open mass work against colonialism in a largely agrarian context.
With the formation of an independent Indian state in 1947 under the Congress party, supported by Gandhi, conditions changed again. Ghadar was, by this stage, still operational but increasingly intertwined with the Communist Party, which in turn, had a complex on-off relationship with the ruling Congress party – yet “Ghadar’s influence,” Ramnath writes, “continued to echo long after independence. The Kirti Party and later the Lal Communist Party espoused a heterodox socialism that resisted the diktats of CPI correctness and retained characteristically Ghadarite elements of romantic idealism.” Veteran Ghadarites came to the fore again when the CPI Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) split from the Party in the 1960s, and in 1969, a Communist Ghadar Party of India (CGPI) was founded among the Indian Diaspora in Britain and Canada with “anticapitalism and opposition to neocolonialism in India and antiracism and the struggle for immigrant rights in the West” as its key goals. The best epitaph of Ghadar appears to be that of Rattan Singh, quoted by Ramnath as saying the party consisted of “simple peasants who became revolutionists and dared to raise the banner of revolt at a time when most of our national leaders could not think beyond ‘Home Rule’.”

b) Post-Independence: Sarvodaya

Jayaprakash Narayan

Beyond Ghadarite echoes within heterodox communism, did libertarian socialism implant itself within post-Independence India in any way? To answer this question, we have to turn to Sarvodaya as a movement. I must say that Ramnath makes a strong case that its key interpreter in his later years, Jayaprakash "JP" Narayan, had moved from Marxism to a position far to the left of Gandhi, of de facto anarchism, by Independence. Narayan was a founder in 1934 of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), then a left caucus within the Indian National Congress. Ramnath makes no mention of the inner dynamics of the CSP, which make for intriguing reading. According to Maria Misra’s Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India since the Great Rebellion (2008), the CSP “included both socialists and [after 1936] communists – following the recent U-turn in Soviet policy encouraging communists to collaborate with nationalist parties. The goal of this group was the continuation and escalation of mass agitation, the boycott of constitutional reform and the inclusion of the trade unions and kisan sabhas [peasant associations] in Congress in order to strengthen the institutional representation of the radicals”. According to Kunal Chattopadhyay in The World Social Forum: What it Could Mean for the Indian Left (2003), after the Communists were expelled from Congress in 1940 for advocating measures that would warm an anarchist heart (a general strike linked with an armed uprising), a growing “anarchist” influence led the CSP under Narayan’s leadership into a more strongly anti-statist, anti-parliamentary orientation. A tantalising hint – although much depends on what Chattopadhyay means by “anarchist”! 
Then, after Indian statehood in 1947, the CSP split from Congress to form a more mainstream Indian Socialist Party – and Narayan exited, turning his back on electoral politics entirely. For the next 30 years – before his return to party politics to rally the forces that defeated the 1975-1977 Indira Gandhi military dictatorship – Narayan worked at the grassroots level, together with fellow Sarvodayan anti-authoritarian Vinoba Bhave (1895 -1982), pushing  Sarvodaya very close to anarchism in many regards. Ramnath quotes Narayan: “I am sure that it is one of the noblest goals of social endeavour to ensure that the powers and functions and spheres of the State are reduced as far as possible”. Marshall traces the development of the post-Gandhi Sarvodaya movement from the 1949 formation of the All-India Association for the Service of All (Akhil Bharat Sarva Seva Sangh), an anti-partisan formation aiming at a decentralised economy and common ownership, to its peak in 1969 when the Sarvodaya movement managed to get 140,000 villages to declare themselves in favour of a “modified version of Gramdan” or communal ownership of villages, although in reality only a minority implemented this. Still, this push apparently “distributed over a million acres of Bhoodan [voluntary landowner-donated] land to half a million landless peasants”. 
For Narayan, “decentralization cannot be effected by handing down power from above,” “to people whose capacity for self-rule has been thwarted, if not destroyed by the party system and concentration of power at the top”. Instead, the “process must be started from the bottom” with a “programme of self-rule and self-management” and a “constructive, non-partisan approach”. Ramnath quotes him saying of the state that “I am sure that it is one of the noblest goals of social endeavour to ensure that the powers and functions and spheres of the State are reduced as far as possible…” 
In the Asian anti-imperialist context, the Manchurian Revolution precisely demonstrated the possibilities of Narayan’s vision, but also the necessity of this entailing a revolutionary struggle, rather than mere moralistic appeals to exploitative landlords. This road was mapped out by Ghadar as well as in the vibrant minority stream of East Asian anarchism. In 1929, Korean anarchists in Manchuria, who were waging a fierce struggle against Japan’s 1910 occupation of Korea, formed the Korean Anarchist Federation in Manchuria (KAF-M). The KAF-M and the Korean Anarchist Communist Federation (KACF) reached agreement with an anarchist-sympathetic general commanding part of the anti-imperialist Korean Independence Army to transform the Shinmin Prefecture, a huge mountainous valley which lies along the northern Korean border, into a regional libertarian socialist administrative structure known as the General League of Koreans (Hanjok Chongryong Haphoi) or HCH. 
This self-managed anarchist territory was based on delegates from each Shinmin district, and organised around departments dealing with warfare, agriculture, education, finance, propaganda, youth, social health and general affairs. Delegates at all levels were ordinary workers and peasants who earned a minimal wage, had no special privileges, and were subject to decisions taken by the organs that mandated them, like the co-operatives. It was based on free peasant collectives, the abolition of landlordism and the state, and the large-scale co-ordination of mutual aid banks, an extensive primary and secondary schooling system, and a peasant militia supplemented by fighters trained at guerrilla camps. This vital example of an Asian anarchist revolution is grievously understudied, but ranks with Ukraine 1918-1921 and Spain 1936-1939 as one of the great explicitly anarchist/syndicalist revolutions.Fortunately, there first academic study has now been published: Emilio Crisi, Revolución Anarquista en Manchuria (1929-1932), Editorial Libros de Anarres, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2015, for which I wrote the introduction.

c) Contemporary: Shramik Mukti Dal

National Garment Workers' Federation, Bangladesh

The third Indian anarchistic organisation that Ramthath considers in Decolonizing Anarchism is the “post-traditional communist” Shramik Mukti Dal (Toiler's Liberation League), which rose in rural Maharashtra in 1980. She quotes founder Bharat Patankar saying that “revolution means… the beginning of a struggle to implement a new strategy regarding the relationship between men and women and between people of different castes and nationalities. It means alternative ways of organizing and managing the production processes, alternate concepts of agriculture, and of agriculture/industry/ecology, and of alternative healthcare.” The Shramik Mukti Dal that emerges here is one that goes well beyond a backward-looking idealisation of tradition: its manifesto calls for a holistic and egalitarian revolution, assaulting through the transformation of daily life, “the established capitalist, casteist, patriarchal, social-economic structure,” “destroying the power of the current state” and replacing it with an “organized network of decentralized and ecologically balanced agro-industrial centers” – with “a new ecologically balanced, prosperous, non-exploitative society” as its aim. A de facto anarchist position if ever there was.
Yet it is only in very recent years that explicitly anarchist currents have re-emerged in South Asia, strangely none of them named by Ramnath: the National Garment Workers' Federation (NGWF) of Bangladesh, founded in 1984 with offices in Dhaka, Chitagong, Savar and Tongi, boasting 20,000 dues-paying members and 14,900 non-dues-paying members structured into 1,016 factory committees at 28 plants, and its affiliated National Shop Employees' Federation (NSEF), which support the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers' Association (IWA) – both the NGWF and NSEF are still active today; the anarcho-syndicalist Anacho-Sindico in New Delhi which affiliated to the global International Libertarian Solidarity (ILS) network founded in 2001; and the synthesist Indian Anarchist Federation (IAF) founded in Bophal, Madhya Pradesh, India, in 2014 (after Decolonizing Anarchism was published), with a chapter established later in the Indian state of West Bengal, and its initiative started in 2017, the Noam Chomsky Society of India. I am not aware of any current anarchist organisations in Pakistan and Sri Lanka currently.

Anarchist Women in the Colonial Context

Arundhati Roy

Ramnath’s work has highlighted for me – by its absence – the question of where were the leading women in these organisations, especially in light of Har Dayal’s opposition to women’s oppression, and the awe in which she says he held the likes of the Russian anarchist (later Marxist) Vera Zasulich? Latin America saw the rise of many towering female anarchist women, such as La Voz de la Mujer editor Juana Rouco Buela (1889-1969) of Argentina and her close associate, factory worker and Women’s Anarchist Centre organiser Virginia Bolten (1870-1960), syndicalist Local Workers’ Federation (FOL) leader Petronila Infantes (1922- ) of Bolivia, libertarian pedagogue Maria Lacerda de Moura (1887-1944) in Brazil, Magónista junta member María Andrea Villarreal González (1881-1963) and fellow Mexican, the oft-jailed Vésper and El Desmonte editor and poet Juana Belém Gutiérrez de Mendoza (1875-1942), an indigenous Caxcan. In many Latin American countries, women’s workplace strength was such that the anarchist/syndicalist unions had a Sección Feminina, such as the FOL’s powerful Women Workers’ Federation (FOF) – not as a gender ghetto, but because women workers tended to be concentrated in certain industries, especially textiles. 

Is this absence of Indian women revolutionaries due to our lack of sources, or did the anti-colonial struggle and the related national question somehow limit women’s participation? Many of the most prominent women anarchists and syndicalists outside of the West were in postcolonial or in imperialist countries. In colonial Latin America, the feminist syndicalist Louisa Capetillo (1880-1922) of Puerto Rico stands out. Most of the prominent East Asian anarchist women of which we know were located in imperialist Japan: the journalist Kanno Sugako (1881-1911) who was executed for her alleged role in a regicidal conspiracy; the anarchist-nihilist Kaneko Fumiko (1903-1926), who committed suicide in jail after plotting to assassinate the Emperor to protest against Japanese imperialism in Korea; the syndicalist Itō Noe (1895–1923) who was murdered by the police; and writer and poet Takamure Itsue (1894–1964). 
There were, of course, outstanding Chinese anarchist women – notably He Zhen – but of them we know precious little, beyond some of their writings. Again, there are tantalising glimpses in colonial Asia: Wong So-ying, 25, who was jailed for 10 years for attempting to assassinate the British Protector of the Chinese for Selangor, Malaya (Malaysia), in 1925, committing suicide in her cell after the authorities failed to get her to name her co-conspirators; the Lee sisters, Kyu-Suk and Hyun-Suk, who smuggled arms and explosives into the anarchist Shinmin zone in Manchuria in the late 1920s; and Truong Thi Sau, who apparently commanded a guerrilla section of the anarchist Nguyan An Ninh Secret Society in Cochinchina (Vietnam)  in the mid-1920s, languish in the margins of history and have yet to be adequately studied. In India, it is perhaps significant that the lone early woman anarchist-influenced militant who is noted in anarchist records, Sister Nivedita (1867-1911), was born as Margaret Elizabeth Noble in Ireland. It still needs to be explained why it was only in recent years that libertarian socialist Indian thinkers such as the anti-imperialist writer Arundhati Roy (1961 - ), a staunch supporter of Kashmiri autonomy – she has been called a “separatist anarchist” by her enemies – have come to the fore.


Indian Anarchist Federation demonstration, 2016

Both of Ramnath’s books are brave, groundbreaking and vital contributions to the liberation literature of an entire sub-continent. My criticism of some points should not occlude this. Decolonizing Anarchism is written from the perspectives and sensibilities of an activist, while Haj to Utopia from those of a social historian. In some respects, the latter, being the more academic work, is the more detailed and solidly argued, whereas the prior relies to some extent on statements of synthesis reflecting reductions of long internal and external debates, of Ramnath’s personal journey of discovery. They are packed with so many new vistas on the unknown South Asian aspects of anarchist anti-colonialism that they demand repeated readings, which never fail to delight. They should be read in tandem, as together they retrieve a lost set of libertarian socialist (and anarchist) tools once used within a vastly complex culture, and by this process re-legitimise and sharpen the potential today for such anti-authoritarian approaches as  multiple blades directed at the Gordian knot of ethnic identity, post-colonial capitalism and neo-imperialism, within South Asia and globally.


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Decolonising Dance: Dada Masilo’s Giselle

Michael Schmidt and Dada Masilo

Two weeks back, I had the privilege to watch Dada Masilo’s breath-taking rendition of the ballet Giselle at the University of Johannesburg Theatre – the first time in seven years that Masilo’s company, Dance Factory, has performed in her home country. Preview Here
Now I am far from being among the ballet cognoscenti, but I do hail from a family of ballet dancers: two of my aunts, Chiquita and Simone were such, and their sister Suzette still is. When I was an army conscript in the bad old days, I had the good fortune to have access to the Cape Provincial Library system and ordered myself a whole shelf of books; among them works on Budddhism like Peter Matthiessen’s beautiful The Snow Leopard, and others on ballet dancers such as Margot Fonteyn and Vaslav Nijinsky. That aside, I’m not really qualified to write on ballet, but here goes.
Before I saw the show, I had no idea of the plot of Giselle, so I had no classical comparison to stack up against what I was about to see – but I knew from past shows of Masilo’s such as her detourned Swan Lake with its mash-up of classical, African and contemporary dance, gay storyline and witty narration to expect something special. Preview Here Now 32, Masilo was born in Soweto and started dancing in the township’s streets as a young girl of 12. Today, she has become an international phenomenon, wildly popular – though controversial – in France in particular, she has evolved from a dancer into a dancer-choreographer of serious repute as far afield as Canada and Russia [full disclosure: she is my niece].
Now I had to look this up, but Giselle was first performed in 1841, having been created by librettists Jules-Henry Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier, scored by composer Adolphe Adam and choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. 
The plot was inspired by a Heinrich Heine’s prose in De l'Allemagne, by Heinrich Heine, and by a poem called Fantômes in Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales, and revolves around phantasms called the Willis (as in, “that creepy old house gives me the willies”). The Willis are vengeful spirits of virgin women who die unwed – a fate clearly considered worse than death in the Victorian era – but Masilo gives the tale a powerful feminist tone, with an sub-text on issues of class too. 
Giselle is a peasant girl who falls in love but who is then betrayed by her lover Albrecht who becomes betrothed to another woman. She dies of a broken heart – but in the second act is raised from the grave by Myrtha, Queen of the Willis, and conscripted into their ranks in order to wreak revenge on Albrecht. But Giselle’s unquenched love for Albrecht leads to an intense battle of wills between her and the spirits who attempt to literally dance Albrecht to death.
According to my aunt Suzette, in the original choreography, passed down from Marius Petipa’s interpretation for the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Willis are austere and loom about the stage in their white cotton robes with impassive faces, but Masilo, her protégé, has fleshed them out to conform more closely to the horror inspired in Romance-era hearts by these spectres. Indeed, the Willis are presented here as vibrant and vicious red-dressed harridans, moving in phalanx, but also individualised. 
But before they are introduced in act two, roughly the same group are in act one instead a group of peasant girls, Giselle’s peers, doing back-breaking work on what appears to be some sort of 19th Century Brazilian plantation. Masilo has also rounded out usually two-dimensional secondary characters such as Giselle’s mother – here a hard-drinking, querulously comic African mama. 
The screened backdrop is painted by celebrated artist William Kentridge; I’ve never liked his work, but here, his scrappiness delivers just the right swampy mood without being intrusive on the ballet itself. The soundscape is far more present and entwined: composed by Phillip Miller, it shifts between and combines traditional cello and violin with African drumming and vocals; precisely the sort of syncretic sounds one would expect to emerge in Brazilian plantation worker culture – and, judging by the mostly young, black audience, a real crowd-pleaser.
Masilo has a reputation for taking on really tough tasks, as if ballet weren’t bloody-footedly hard enough. A year and a half ago we had a long discussion about her planned adaptation of what must be one of the toughest pieces in classical music, Igor Stravinsky’s ascendantly hectic and atonal ballet The Rite of Spring which Nijinsky made his own in the 1920s; it was reportedly very well received in New York. With Giselle, she maintains her visceral and demanding tempo, mixing in elements that delighted the audience such as Giselle’s friends gossiping in the vernacular. 
One wonders whether her Francophone critics who find her work, weirdly, “too un-African” will be satisfied with the “Africanness” of the topless scenes where Giselle is prepped by her mother to meet an alternate suitor, and where she is ridiculed by the other girls for being jilted by Albrecht. Masilo rolls her eyes afterwards as she tells me “the French actually demand more ‘Zulu foot-stomping’!”; my response is that we are talking about a people – my own – who in defiance of the knowledge that modern sculpture is rooted in African sculpture insist on exhibiting it as “arts primitifs” in Paris.
The petite, gap-toothed, chiskop Masilo dances Giselle, Kyle Rossouw is Albrecht and in a typical Masilo inversion, Queen Myrtha is imposingly tall male dancer Llewellyn Mnguni, who with his scarlet tutu and white flywhisk, she tells me afterwards is a sangoma figure – but I retort is more like a valoi in his/her malevolence. 
The ballet itself is astounding, and rather than an interpretation, it is an entire renovation: while this time only a few traces of classical remain, primarily in the footwork, lifts and turns, the African-modernist elements come muscularly to the fore in a continually morphing matrix of the fluid and the angular – interspersed with lovely surprise elements that to my untutored eye appear like jazz, rock ‘n roll, hip-hop dance-off, as well as the martial arts/dance of capoeira (strengthening my scent of the Afro-Brazilian) that evaporate almost as soon as they emerge, like lemon ice-cream on the tongue.
The company has just completed a punishing five-show rotation of Giselle at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown (and will be jetting off to Vienna in August to dance Giselle and Swan Lake) – the performances hailed as “feminist” and “barrier-breaking”. Back at the UJ Theatre, when the house lights go up, the entire audience is on its feet, hullabalooing, ululating, whistling and clapping its wild appreciation in a most African manner. As one audience member puts it to Masilo afterwards, “everyone’s talking about decolonising the arts – and your ballet just did it!”


Friday, 30 June 2017

The pre-WWII Vietnamese Anarchist Movement

An extract from my forthcoming thousand-plus-page book, Wildfire: Global Anarchist Ideological and Organisational Lineages.

The two leading lights of the pre-WWII Vietnamese anarchist movement represented the two main traditions: Phan Bội Châu (above) the "collectivist" mass line and Nguyễn An Ninh (below) the "individualist" insurrectionists.

The territory later known as Vietnam (Tonkin in the north, Annam in the centre and Cochinchina in the south) was originally Chinese tributary territory, but fell under French colonial administration from 1884, with Tonkin and Annam being placed under harsher rule as protectorates, but the people of Cochinchina given more breathing room because it had the “privilege” of being a direct colony. An isolated and divided people with a long quietist societal tradition under the heels of a dynastic empire propped up by Mandarin administrators and Confucian scholars who initially served Chinese, then French interests, radicalism was late in developing in Vietnam. Radicalism originally emerged in 1898 as the anti-colonial Reform Movement, which was inspired by the Chinese reform movement of that year. But the reformists would soon be challenged by two main anarchist currents, according to Tai: the “collectivist orientation” that was “a component of anarcho-socialism” introduced by students returning from China and Japan; and the “libertarian and individualist strain” introduced from those whose studies had taken them to France. Only recently has the role of anarchism in the Vietnamese Revolution attracted scholarly analysis, despite anarchism’s unmistakable influence on the revolution’s early phase,” Tai noted. According to Dirlik’s Encyclopaedia Britannica article, it was “through association with Chinese anarchists in Tokyo that anarchism entered Vietnamese radicalism.” 

An important figure was the Vietnamese anarchist scholar-turned-militant Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940), Tai’s “pioneer of the Revolution”, who was in Tokyo in the early 20th Century where he “engaged in common activities with Chinese and Japanese radicals.” The “Pan-Asian anti-imperialism of the Chinese anarchists resonated” with his own concerns about the liberation of Vietnam from France. Born in Nghe An in Annam, he was 18 years old when it fell under French colonialism, firing his patriotism and driving him into the arms of a royalist opposition group (despite the fact that from 1885, the French controlled the royal succession). But Phan was soon moving towards radical republicanism. It is not known whether the Russian Revolt of 1905 radicalised him, but in that year, he wrote the influential Viet Nam Vong Quoc Su (History of the Loss of Vietnam) and established the “Eastern Travel Movement” which encouraged Vietnamese students, stifled by the patronising style of French education, to travel abroad to improve themselves. 

The movement successfully relocated a generation of Vietnamese youth to two centres of pre-war anarchism: Tokyo and Paris. Phan himself, then 38 years old, left for Tokyo in 1905 with Phan Chu Trinh, the son of a wealthy land-owner, where they befriended a wide circle of anti-colonial activists including members of the Japanese Socialist Party and Sun Yat-Sen. But Allen said Phan Chu Trinh "broke with Chau [sic.] over the question of Japan’s real intentions toward Indochina. He returned to Vietnam and opened a modern school to teach children of both sexes [presumably inspired by the anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer] and he railed at the French for their hypocrisy. While Phan Chu Trinh attached the French, he also believed that with the help of the French bureaucracy, Vietnam could become a modern society."

Back in Japan in 1907, Phan Bội Châu formed the Constitutionalist Association (Cong Hien Hoi) to advance the anti-colonial cause among Vietnamese exiles, but it was shut down by the Japanese authorities the following year, acting on a French request. But in that year, Phan appears to have gravitated towards anarchism, albeit still flavoured with Vietnamese nationalism, joining the Asian Friendship Association (Ashin Washinkai) – otherwise known as the League of East Asian Lost Countries (Tungya Wangkuo Tungmenhui) – founded by the Chinese exile anarchists Ha Zhen and Liu Shipei, with its paper Tien I (Natural Justice). Back in Vietnam in 1908, a series of anti-tax riots broke out, followed by peasant riots in Quand Nam. The French authorities used the excuse to smash the Reform Movement by arresting scores of its leading scholars including Phan Chu Trinh, and shutting down the Tonkin Free School which had been founded the previous year (presumably by Phan Chu Trinh) and the University of Hanoi which had been founded in 1902. Phan Chu Trinh was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life in Poulo Cordone.

Phan Bội Châu was expelled from Japan in 1909 and traveled to the independent monarchy of Siam (now Thailand), the British enclave of Hong Kong and finally southern China. The successful 1911 Republican Revolution in China inspired Phan to move to south China in 1912, where he founded the League for the Restoration of Vietnam (Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi) among Vietnamese exiles. Despite the fact that the League was funded in part by a 200 piaster donation from Liu, the League was republican in orientation. But its backers in Cochinchina wanted a monarchy free of French influence, so a pretender to the throne, Prince Cuong De became its figurehead, with Phan as “prime minister” of its government-in-exile, demonstrating the mixed politics of the early anti-colonial movement. Allen claims, without supporting proof, that this meant Phan "believed that a strong emperor with the help of the Chinese and Japanese could defeat the French… His thinking at first was essentially feudal in outlook and aimed at restoring the power of the emperor supported by his mandarins in an independent Vietnam. He had almost nothing to say about the vast economic and social changes brought by French imperialism." But this is clearly untrue because Phan Bội Châu also set up a “League for the Prosperity of China and Asia” to, in Tai’s words, “foster solidarity between China and the colonised countries of Asia, in particular Vietnam, India, Burma and Korea”. On a trip to Shanghai, Phan also joined with fifteen Chinese and one Japanese anarchist in the clandestine League for Humanity (The Goi Nhan Dao Hoi), immersing himself in the anarchist resistance movement.

In 1911, Phan Chu Trinh was released from jail, becoming according to Allen, a symbol of “resistance to the French for many educated Vietnamese”. In 1913, League assassins killed two French army officers in Hanoi in Tonkin and the Vietnamese governor of Thai Binh province – and influenced secret societies and religious sects to attack the French police headquarters in Saigon in Cochinchina. The young French-installed monarch Duy Tan was implicated in a plot against the French garrison in Annam and was promptly dethroned and replaced. Seven League members were executed and Phan Bội Châu was sentenced to death in absentia. In this period, it appears that the French-language edition of Shifu’s Minsheng (The Voice of the People), La Voco de la Popolo, was available to Vietnamese radicals in the country’s north. French entry into the First World War saw the authorities in Vietnam press-gang thousands of “volunteers” into service in Europe, leading to riots throughout Cochinchina. The French claimed Phan Bội Châu was behind the disturbances, further boosting his reputation as the key anti-colonial figure – but 38 League members were executed and 1,000 people jailed. Phan was betrayed in China by a double agent and spent the next three years in a Chinese prison, being released in 1917, the year the University of Hanoi was reopened. 

In August 1917, there was a revolt in Thai Nguyen province, Tonkin, provoked by the brutality of the French résident named Darles who was held responsible for the death by murder or suicide of 670 prisoners in the first eight months of the year. Importantly, the revolt, which was lead by Luong Ngoc Quyon, united both prisoners and French colonial troops repulsed by Darles’ sadism and lasted for three months. Quyon was a former member of Phan’s Eastern Travel Movement who had moved to Japan in 1905, was jailed in south China in 1915, losing the use of both his legs during two years in a tiny cell. The French killed 500 in suppressing the revolt and merely fined Darles a nominal amount for his inhumanity. He was only fired after photographs of him personally torturing a Vietnamese prisoner were published by an opposition newspaper. 

Meanwhile the League had been kept afloat in Phan Bội Châu’s absence by militants like Dang Tu Man and Dan Thuc Hua, but in 1919, Hua left the League, criticising it for its elitism and calling for revolutionaries to, in echo of the slogans of the Chinese anti-colonial May 4 Movement of that year, “go barefoot into the streets and byways and live the life of the common people”. In 1920, Tai writes, Phan published his translation of a Japanese syndicalist work, Inquiry into the True Character of the Soviet Union. But a new generation was coming to the fore and in 1923, former League members regrouped as the Society of Like Hearts (Tam Tam Xa) – otherwise known as the New Vietnam Youth Corps (Tan Viet Thanh Nien Doan) – that Tai maintains was an anarchist organisation based on Liu’s One Heart Society (I Hsin She), a cell-based organisation that cloaked itself in nationalist terms. In 1924, members of the Society of Like Hearts contacted Soviet advisers at the newly-formed, communist-controlled Whampoa Military Academy in China. Armed with explosives acquired from the academy, Society militant Phan Hong Thai, a factory worker, attempted to kill the French governor-general of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) who was on an official visit to Canton. Thai missed his target, but killed three and wounded two in his entourage, then drowned in the river while fleeing, giving Vietnam its first revolutionary martyr. Thai was later buried near the graves of the martyrs of the 1911 Wuchang mutiny.

In 1923, Nguyễn An Ninh, the son of a small land-owning Reform Movement “country scholar”, returned to Vietnam from France where he had become an individualist pacifist anarchist, and delivered a sensational speech on the aspirations of Annamite youth that inspired a generation. Born in 1900, Nguyễn originally worked as a journalist on the mainstream Courier Saigonnais (Saigon Courier) before studying law at the Sorbonne in Paris starting in 1920 where he joined the communist-initiated “Group of Annamite Patriots in France” and apparently wrote on Vietnam both for Paria (Pariah), the anti-colonial journal of the new French Communist Party (PCF), and for Le Libertaire (The Libertarian), the organ of the Anarchist Union (UA). Writing on the supposed “miracle” of France’s “civilising mission” in Southeast Asia, Nguyễn responded: "What is this miracle? It is a miracle indeed to be able in a short time to plunge a people with an already low intellectual level into thick ignorance; it is a miracle indeed to be able, in such a short time to plunge a people with democratic ideas into complete servitude."

On Nguyễn’s return to Vietnam aged 23, he founded the outspoken anarchist bi-weekly newspaper Cloche Fêlée (Broken Bell), which Tai writes sold 1,500 to 2,000 copies despite its correspondence being intercepted by the French Sûreté security police and its street-sellers being frequently roughed up by police and French patriots.The publisher of Cloche Fêlée was the Vietnamese-French métis Eugene Dejean de la Batie. But despite the paper’s electrifying rapport among the Vietnamese, Nguyễn never converted its support into an organisational base. Still, though it lasted only seven months, its core was refounded in 1925 as the radical journal Indochine (Indochina), later Indochine Enchâinée (Indochina Enchained), which sold 5,000 copies and provided a locus around which the proto-revolutionary Young Annam (Jeune Annam) group revolved. Cloche Fêlée was briefly revived with an even more radical tone in 1925 under the editorship of Phan Van Truong.

In 1924, Phan Bội Châu started talking about refounding his defunct League into a Guomindang-styled party (bearing in mind the Guomindang had been structured under Comintern influence as a Leninist organisation), and spoke to both Chiang Kai-Shek and Comintern agents to this end. But his initiative was stillborn because of the visit to south China of the key Vietnamese communist, Nguyen Tat Thanh (Nguyen Ai Quoc, or “Nguyen the Patriot”) – better known as Ho Chi Minh. A teacher by training, Ho had left Vietnam aged about 20 in 1911, worked for two years as a cook’s assistant on ships plying the Atlantic, settled in London in 1913, moved to France in 1917 and founded the “Group of Annamite Patriots in France”, joined the Socialist Party (PS) as its Indochinese delegate and was among the founders of the PCF. Until Ho was sent to China in the company of Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, the Bolsheviks had viewed Indochina as a mere province of China, but from that date on, the creation of an Indochinese Communist Party was on the Russian agenda.

In 1925, an organisation called Vietnamese Restoration (Phuc Viet) was founded among more radical League prisoners on the penal island of Con Son, later expanding into Annam and Tonkin where social and political freedoms were more restricted than in Cochinchina. The young student militant Tong Quang Phiet joined Phuc Viet. Then three events sparked the first true national resistance in Vietnam. Firstly, Phan Bội Châu was captured in China and brought back to Vietnam to stand trial. Allen notes that “[t]ens of thousands of Vietnamese followed his trial”. A national hero, his death sentence outraged even the “Constitutionalists” who favoured Vietnamese assimilation to French imperialism. Secondly, the 1926 funeral of veteran reformer Phan Chu Trinh – which Allen notes drew a procession of 60,000 people – sparked mass demonstrations that uniquely united some 15,000 workers, students and activists. Thirdly, in 1926, Jeune Annam, which became the Young Annam Party (PJA), hosted an unprecedented anti-colonial meeting of 3,000 people, and began transforming into a political party, but Nguyễn declined the offered leadership post. He was arrested shortly afterwards. At that time, according to Ngo Van, the anarchist Trinh Hung Ngau – he is described by other sources as a nationalist with anarchist leanings – was involved in Jeune Annam and worked on the newspaper L’Annam (Annam) between 1926 and 1928. Despite the new governor-general of Indochina, the Socialist Alexandre Varenne, commuting Phan’s sentence to an indefinite term under house arrest, popular outrage found expression in a two-year strike-wave that shut down many schools and French-owned businesses. The repression that followed radicalised the youth – with Cloche Fêlée beginning to serialise the Communist Manifesto – thousands of whom went into exile in France, China and elsewhere.

The PJA was rendered impotent by exile, but within a short space of time, four new competing, but overtly revolutionary, organisations developed. In southern China in 1925, Ho Chi Minh, former League member Lam Duc Thu and several members of the anarchist Society of Like Hearts had founded the clandestine Communist Youth Corps (Than Nien Cong San Doan), which acted as the ideological nucleus of the public Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth (Viet Nam Kach Mon Than Nien). Tai notes that Ho “wished to refute not so much the anarchist vision of post-revolutionary society as the anarchist critique of political parties and authority, which undermined his efforts to build a strong Leninist party”. Ho also created a “League of Oppressed People of the East” that Tai writes had members from Vietnam, China, India, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia – an apparent echo of Phan’s earlier League for the Prosperity of China and Asia. In response to the challenge, Phuc Viet in Annam renamed itself the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party (Viet Nam Cach Man Dang) in 1926, while the militants clustered around the Nam Dong Publishing Society in Tonkin founded the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, or VNQDD). And in Cochinchina, Nguyễn finally embraced organisation, founding, with working class organiser Pham Van Chieu and brilliant technician Phan Van Hum, the anarchist Nguyen An Ninh Secret Society (Hoi Kin Nguyễn An Ninh), which had three guerrilla sections including one commanded by Nguyễn ’s wife.

With between 700 and 800 members drawn mostly from among peasants, workers and criminals in the outskirts of Saigon, the Secret Society was substantially larger than the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party, but smaller than Ho’s League. In 1927, a Vietnamese section of the East Asian Anarchist Federation (EAAF), founded in China that year, was established, but it is not known which Vietnamese organisations were affiliated: the Secret Society or the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party. By 1928, the League’s Cochinchinese regional structure numbered about 200 members and another 250 adherents of auxilliary organisations – and communism was starting to spread among ordinary workers, who had been largely ignored by all revolutionaries until that point. About 40,000 Chinese “coolies” (general labourers) worked the rubber plantations of Cochinchina where, Tai writes, conditions were appalling and where the savage repression of a rebellion on the Phu Rieng plantation in protest at the death of a worker “gave the Youth League its first crack at enrolling plantation workers into its ranks”. It is not known whether any of these migrant workers had been exposed to the powerful anarchist union organising in south China, centred on Canton. 

Nguyễn discussed merging with the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party, but the old party stalwarts were wary of his extremism, as was the VNQDD to which he took a similar proposal. In 1928, Nguyễn and about 500 members of the Society were detained for questioning, and the following year, he and 115 others stood trial. He received a three-year jail term and Society militants like Phan Van Chieu and Truong Thi Sau kept the organisation alive in his absence. But the repression – and an inability to seize the initiative as Ho had done – would prove fatal for the broader anarchist movement. The League in Cochinchina also suffered a massive crackdown resulting from a police investigation into the party-sanctioned murder of its own regional head, Le Van Phat, in 1928 for forcing a young woman recruit to serve him sexually. Almost a third of the League’s Cochinchinese membership was either jailed or put to flight. The nationalist VNQDD, for its part, was virtually eliminated by the Sûreté following the assassination in 1929 of Hervé Bazin, the Indochinese director of manpower, by a party member who had been refused permission to carry out such an assassination. Hundreds of VNQDD members were arrested and 227 tried, prompting the party to call for a premature and suicidal insurrection in 1930. The insurrection was nipped in the bud and Nguyen Hai Thoc and twelve other party leaders were guillotined.  

Also in 1929, a minority faction of the communist League split off and founded the Indochinese Communist Party (PCI) along Leninist lines, recruiting Tonkinese League and VNQDD members. In Cochinchina, the PCI was opposed by a rival Annamite Communist Party, but eventually swallowed almost all its rivals including many survivors of Nguyễn’s Secret Society – all except Phan Bội Châu’s “New” Vietnamese Revolutionary Party in Annam. Floods and famine in Vietnam in 1929 were met by a refusal by the French to allow Vietnamese relief work, fearing it would allow revolutionaries to raise funds under cover of humanitarian aid. This provoked a series of mass demonstrations across the territory, including the first Vietnamese May Day rally in Nghe An province. At a congress in Hong Kong in 1930, the League, which like the PCI had failed to gain Comintern endorsement, reunited with their now-powerful dissidents under the PCI aegis. This new PCI was finally given the nod by Moscow, but Ho was arrested in China in 1931 and only resurfaced in south China as an active participant in Vietnamese revolutionary politics in 1941, when the PCI formed the “League for the Independence of Vietnam” (best known as the Viet Minh).

Meanwhile the protests developed into a revolt, spurred on by a growing trade union movement, escalated into strikes, peasant demonstrations, riots, and, in Nghe An and Ha Tinh in Annam and Cao Lanh in Cochinchina, the formation of village soviets and peasant militias, the latter of which only surrendered to French forces in January 1931. Most accounts attribute the revolt to “communists” but support in Phan Bội Châu’s home town of Nghe An for his New Vietnamese Revolutionary Party suggests a more complex picture. Nevertheless, the formation of the PCI greatly weakened local anarchist counter-power. In 1933 the anarchist Trinh Hung Ngau was one of the founders of the journal La Lutte (The Struggle), but withdrew after the third issue as he felt he was unable to express his anarchist views within its pages. However, in 1936 a group of 25 Chinese anarchist militants – who had intended fighting in the Spanish Revolution, but were turned back at Marseilles, France – returned to Vietnam and not China, so they established an organisation there. It is not clear whether there was any link between the Vietnamese anarchist movement and the unusual strength of Trotskyism in Cochinchina in the 1940s, the Trotskyist “Left Opposition” (Tai Do Lap) group having been formed in 1931. But Tai notes that the France-based Annamite Independence Party (PIA), formed in 1928 by former Secret Society militant Phan Van Hum, out of which the Tai Do Lap arose, had envisaged a Vietnamese “parliament” consisting solely of syndicalist delegates, not political party delegates. Another wave of repression by the French in 1939 – during which Nguyễn An Ninh was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and 10 years’ exile for conspiring against the colonial regime and inciting a revolt of peasants and workers – followed by the occupation of Vietnam by Japan in 1940, drove all revolutionary factions further underground. Phan Bội Châu died under house arrest in 1940, while Nguyễn An Ninh died in the Pulo Condore prison in 1943.