Monday, 16 October 2017

Combating Fascism

Members of the Malatesta Battalion of Italian anti-fascist volunteers who fought Franco's forces in the Spanish Revolution defending Basque Country and who, as far as I know, perished - down to the last woman.

In 1936, the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution saw perhaps 40,000 international volunteers flock to Spain. There was no internet, cellphone or email communication and travel to the Revolutionary free zone was exceptionally hazardous, and yet they flooded in. Some 250 (later rising to 400) foreigners such as the Algerian anarchist Saïl Mohamed, German IWW veteran Heinrich Bortz and Canadian IWW veteran Louis Rosenberg were organised into an International Group of the Durruti Column, under Louis Berthomieu, which had as its training base the former Pedralbes Barracks, which was renamed the Miguel Bakunin Barracks, and comprised the Sacco and Vanzetti Century (English-speaking), the Erich Mühsam Century (German-speaking), the Sébastien Faure Century (French- and Italian-speaking), and the Matteotti Battalion (Italian-speaking). 

Meanwhile, several hundred Italians exiled in France – many of them former anti-fascist Arditi del Popolo militiawomen and militiamen (there was actually an office of the exiled USI in Barcelona at the CNT headquarters) – formed the Malatesta Battalion, nick-named the Battalion of Death, which initially started on the Huesca front under Camillo Berneri, but which went on to defend Basque Country, while other Italians were attached to the Justice and Liberty Century of the Ascaso Column, and after May 1937, Italians formed the 25th Ortiz Division within the Land and Liberty Column. About 40% of the XV International Brigade (incorrectly but popularly known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade after one of its subsidiary battalions), though it had been organised by the Comintern, consisted of Wobblies and unaffiliated socialists from the USA. There were only four Wobblies and one anarchist volunteer in the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the XV International Brigade. 

The Spanish Revolution brought into sharp relief the question of revolutionary war: whether it was to be fought along conventional hierarchical military lines, or along unconventional horizontal militia lines. Crucially, this was not merely a question of strategy and tactics – though military historian Antony Beevor hailed the militia over the conventional military in Spain – but at its heart also of ideology, the motivating rationale for armed action, and the ethic which mobilises the masses. In the years since the Spanish Revolution’s defeat from within and because of its capitulation to militarisation and statism, and especially during the post-WWII era of national liberation struggles in Asia and Africa and leftist insurgencies in Latin America, the libertarian military option was largely forgotten, and the guerrillas of the 1950s-1980s largely learned their strategy, tactics and ideology from statists, whether Sun Tzu, Guevara, Mao, Giap or others – though the libertarian tendency, although occluded, was never entirely absent from anti-imperialist struggles in much of Latin America, and to a lesser extent, North Africa, North America, and Europe.

Fast-forward to the post-Soviet era, and the question of revolutionary war has come to the fore again, starting with the Zapatista insurgency in Chiapas in 1994, moving through the Arab Spring of the 2010s, and into the libertarian communist revolutionary experiment in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) today. Eight decades after the Spanish Revolution, we are witnessing the Rojava Revolution and the world's working people are connected as never before - and yet there seems to be a paucity of support for the revolutionary forces fighting the retro-fascist Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist organisation. It made sense that local anarchist organisations first took up the fight: Revolutionary Anarchist Action (DAF) and Social Rebellion (SI) in Turkey and Western Kurdistan. The insurrectionist SI fights alongside the International Freedom Battalion (EÖT), a formation of foreign leftist volunteers inspired by the International Brigades who fought fascism in the Spanish Revolution, but other anarchist formations have joined the struggle: the French-speaking Henri Krausucki Brigade (BHK), the Greek-speaking Revolutionary Union for Internationalist Solidarity (ESDA), and the English-speaking International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF). 

Still, the response from the international anarchist movement to not only fighting fascism, but to defending the first significant social revolution since perhaps the true Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 (not to be confused with the Khomeinist counter-revolution which succeeded it) is disappointing. Certainly, interviews with the anarchists fighting Daesh reveal that the fighters themselves are disdainful of the "armchair anarchists" who criticise those who have taken up arms. Resorting to armed struggle is not a decision to be taken lightly, but just as the struggle against apartheid - in which mass pacifist initiatives such as the Defiance Campaign of the 1950s were popularly successful while remaining largely toothless - a time comes when one has to resort to arms. 

But today’s guerrillas, especially those who wish to establish a free society and not merely yet another repressive-exploitative state-capitalist formation, it is a vastly altered battlespace, with hunter-killer drones, cyberwar, intimate satellite imaging, non-lethal weaponry, biometric tracking, over-the-horizon strike capability, 3D-printed weapons, dirty bombs, and so forth. For post-Soviet libertarian communist revolutionaries, therefore, the question of revolutionary war in this new battlespace, or revolutionary neowar as I term it, is urgently framed by new technologies, new post-Soviet ideologies including Salafist terrorism and a revived libertarian communism – and a whirlwind of competing centrifugal hegemonic-imperialist and centripetal decentralist-proletarian forces.

And yet, this essentially asymmetrical war between the poles of what the autonomists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt call “empire” and “multitude” or what the anarchist Felipe Corrêa calls simply “domination” and “self-management” has been trapped in resistance forms either shaped by a liberal incapacity to grasp the nettle of power (as in the Occupy movement that “occupies” nothing but pre-existing public space), by a naïve, self-incapacitating mass pacifism (as in the Egyptian Spring’s reliance on the theories of the likes of Gene Sharp), and by outmoded tried-and-failed forms of statist guerrilla warfare (in particular the foquismo of Ché Guevara, the militarism of Carlos Marighella, and the proto-state terrorism of the likes of the Red Army Fraction).

A clear question therefore needs to be asked of anarchists, libertarian communists, libertarian autonomists, and all free-associative, decentralist groups, networks and formations: how do we fight back today? How do we ensure that popular mass forces seize power – the ability to transform exploitative relations – and break it down into local directly-democratic, socially pluralistic administrative bodies, horizontally-federated in order to establish a durable libertarian counter-power? I will examine these issues in detail in two forthcoming books and one multimedia project. First the book Deepest Black: Defending the Anarchist Mass-Line (due to be published next year) will examine four historical case studies of mass anarchist movements that defended themselves by force of arms in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Manchuria and Uruguay. Next, the multimedia project The People Armed: Anarchist Fighters Verbatim (a work in progress) will feature in-depth unedited video interviews with anarchist combatants from across the world to be showcased online with text translations and stills portraits. And last, the book Black Crowbar: Anarchist Counter-power in Theory & Practice (in planning) which will update Abraham Guillén’s Strategy of the Urban Guerrilla to produce a contemporary anarchist military praxis.

International Freedom Battalion militants pose with their anti-fascist flag in front of a Daesh banner after their liberation of Tel Abiyad from Daesh.


Return to Blydefontein Farm

Two years ago today, I received a cover concept (below) for my book A Taste of Bitter Almonds which featured a photograph (above) I had taken in Eastern Cape many years ago, combined with the image of one of my ancestors of Bengali slave descent. We eventually went with another cover concept, but here is an extract from the book of the story behind that photograph. 


I am standing alongside Madikane Gwiji on the ruined foundations
of the once-proud homestead that his father built, and the memories
of his childhood have come flooding back. He points out to me
the veranda where he and his family once looked out across their
prosperous mealie fields. But, having been evicted when he was
a child, some memories have gone forever: the 60-year-old can no
longer recall which weed-ridden square of bricks was which room.
Gwiji tells me that his great-grandfather, the clan’s patriarch,
whose first name he shares, was a wealthy man. He bought the
998-hectare farm Blydefontein – named after a reliable natural
spring on the land – for his seven sons and two daughters more
than a century ago. The patriarch’s grandson Dunster Gwiji literally
helped lay the family’s foundations for the future: he was trained
as a builder and a carpenter and brought his skills home to the hills
north of Kokstad, in East Griqualand, part of what is today southern
KwaZulu-Natal. Here he built a farmhouse of stone and brick,
designed to last generations. His son recalls that the house with the
sunny veranda was always a hive of activity. ‘It was a very beautiful
house and it was always full of children.’
To one side stood a large barn and to the other a farm school and a
small church, where the devoutly Christian family worshipped while
the Gwijis’ ‘many cows’ chewed the cud on the hillsides behind. For
decades, things were idyllic and the Gwijis were respected by their
white neighbours. Madikane Gwiji recalls that they used to take short
cuts across each other’s land without any incident. But the shadow of
apartheid reached even into the foothills of the Drakensberg. In 1953,
the Gwijis were forced from their home under the notorious ‘black
spot removal’ campaign, an attempt to consolidate land ownership
and occupation along racial lines. Perhaps in grudging deference to
their wealth and title, the Gwijis did not face the bulldozers. Rather,
they were forced into selling their property to a white farmer under
the pretence that it was a voluntary sale. The effects, however, were
pretty much the same: despair and dispersion.
‘It was too bad,’ Gwiji says. ‘I was at school in Kokstad at the
time. Our cattle and agricultural instruments had to be sold.’ Some
implements were left to rot on the land and some were taken by
the government. Blydefontein was divided in two in 1982, with
Mike Rennie, then the owner, selling off a portion to Kippy Bryden.
Dunster Gwiji’s magnificent farmhouse had already been pulled
down. Bryden initially maintained the farm school ‘for the people
around here, a few kids, my children’. But he was later told by the
government to close it, so he knocked the school down too. ‘In 1980,
I took my father to this place,’ Gwiji says, surveying the ruined
foundations of his childhood home. ‘He did not say anything, but I
could see it was painful for him.’
Dunster Gwiji died in 1988, long before his country was liberated,
never knowing the family would ever get their land back. Oddly
enough, it was Bryden’s father-in-law Bill Elliot – grandson of Sir
Henry Elliot, the first magistrate of the Transkei – who acted as
the Gwijis’ attorney as the NP government attempted to force the
family off their land, starting in 1949. At a celebration hosted today
by the Land Claims Commission, the Gwiji family have finally got
Bryden’s portion of their land back. They intend to rebuild the family
homestead. Meanwhile, negotiations continue via the Commission
for Rennie’s portion.
At the celebration women ululate and sway delightedly as
three-legged pots of lamb stew steam. I shoot photographs of
Gwiji youngsters standing in wonder on the brick remains of their
forefathers’ homestead, looking towards the future. Bryden, aged 59,
and his 58-year-old wife Ingrid sit on the stage in the marquee, looking
slightly uncomfortable. Bryden said earlier, while showing me the
extent of the returned portion of land, ‘I’m glad it’s all coming to a
close and I hope the people, when they get it, farm it nicely – but I’ll
help them.’ He said the Gwijis ‘are coming back to where they were.
These are my neighbours and they will be my children’s neighbours.’


Saturday, 14 October 2017

Bonnets and Burkas: the Economics and Ethics of Modest Fashion

Young Breton woman wearing a traditional lace veil in Plougenast, Brittany, photographed by Charles Fréger for National Geographic

This week I walked past what appears to be a new Korean church in my neighbourhood. The doors were open, a man was preaching in a soft gold satin robe and the women - for the congregation appeared to be exclusively black women - were all wearing white lace veils over their hair. 
It reminded me of that great scene from the movie Angel Heart when private detective Harry Angel climbs the stairs of an African-American church in Harlem and the door swings open to show two young black girls, apparently demure novices in their sect, dressed in ivory dresses and lace-trimmed wimples. 
In 2014, National Geographic - my favourite journal; I boast a collection going back to 1915 - ran a photo-feature by Charles Fréger on the traditional lace head-dresses and silk bonnets of Breton women. Unlike South Africa where the wearing of the Voortrekker bonnet is pretty much reserved for your wizened octogenarian maiden aunt whose mother survived the British concentration camps, what struck me about Fréger's work was how young so many of his models were.
Now, there is a complex relationship - in which I confess I am not expert - between young people and traditionalist dress, particularly in regions with separatist aspirations such as Brittany, or Basque Country, or Kurdistan for that matter. In Brittany, I am aware of the anarchist organisation called Unsubdued! (Desuj!) which was founded 16 years ago, but which presumably has a primarily young membership, but I have no idea what their political-sartorial perspectives are; most likely, their idea of covering the face is with a black balaclava!
And yet, whether it is in allegorical form - as with the TV series based on Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, in which de facto brood-mares for the ruling neo-Calvinist elite all wear body-length scarlet dresses and white bonnets - or in real life, on the street, what is termed "modest fashion" is making somewhat of a comeback.
In June, Vogue featured 19-year-old Somali model Halima Aden as its first-ever hijab-wearing cover model, driving her Instagram account up to 182,000 followers, while the mainstreaming of modest fashion stores like Ajmaan in Rosebank indicate that a sea-change is occurring in high-street style.
In February, London hosted its first Modest Fashion Week at the Saatchi Gallery, featuring more than 40 labels. In March, Nike announced its sleek Pro Hijab athletics-wear for Muslim sportswomen will be available next autumn. Even Forbes took notice, writing that luxury brands such as “DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta… have produced special collections for the Ramadan holiday… In January, Dolce & Gabbana released a collection of hijabs and abayas.”
This shift is not driven by fashionista fancy, however, but largely by the dramatic emergence of wealthy Muslim youth: as Harriet Sherwood wrote in The Guardian last year, “Muslim minorities in Britain, Europe and North America are young, affluent and growing… the Muslim pound, like the pink pound before it, will force soft cultural change by means of hard economics.” 
Thomson Reuters’ State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2016/2017 noted that Muslim spending on clothing and footwear soared to US$243bn – benchmarked against a US spend of US$406bn – with US$56bn spent on cosmetics; and expenditure is projected to hit US$368bn and US$132bn respectively by 2021. At the core of Muslim spend is the US$44bn spent in 2015 by women aged 15 and above on fashion excluding footwear.
“Modest Fashion is gaining mainstream interest,” the report said, “with several retailers and brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Uniqlo and Burberry entering the industry and several notable investments driving the sector forward...” The industry, it noted, is centred on the United Arab Emirates, but key producers include Turkey, China, India, Italy, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, France, Singapore, and Togo.
The rise of Muslim – and more broadly conservative – fashion has been apparent to rag-trade observers for some time, not only in its core markets such Turkey, the largest consumer of Muslim fashion in the world at US$25,7bn in 2015, and Nigeria which purchased US$16,1bn the same year, but also perhaps counter-intuitively, in countries such as the USA, though Thompson Reuters notes that the Western market is underserviced, and is threatened by hijab bans such as that in France.
Modest fashion appeals to conservative Christians and other traditionalists too, but it was sassy, tech-savvy young bloggers of “Generation M” – the almost one third of the world’s Muslim 1.8bn population aged 15 to 29 – who over the past few years have ensured that modest fashion lighted up on the radar of global haute couture.
So says Shelina Janmohamed, London-born author of the book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, who singled out Muslim bloggers like the British-Japanese Hana Tajima and the Kuwaiti-American who goes by the handle Ascia AKF who “built loyal followings among young Muslim women. As such bloggers grew in popularity they started their own labels, and the modest fashion industry was born.”
Thomson Reuters’ report backs this up, noting that Muslim Millennials’ primary social media engagement with the global Islamic economy were in finance, media and entertainment – and modest fashion, the latter with 101,000 Facebook interactions per year.
Much of the trade itself occurs online, as via the UK’s 250-designer modest fashion portal Haute-Elan, while in South Africa, My Online Souk, founded four years ago by Sabeena Khonat, now 40, digitally showcases funky modest styles in everything from swimwear to corporate dress, 85% of its brands sourced locally.
Her sister and partner Jehan Ara Khonat, 26, told me that the core of their client base was women aged 25-35 – and that it was growing beyond the Muslim community, “appealing to every type of modest dresser.” 
“I follow quite a few global modest fashion figures, mainly on Instagram and YouTube, but there’s some great local talent too such as Nabilah Kariem and Aqeelah Harron of Fashion Breed. They inspire me, just as they inspire others of creative ways to look great without compromising your values.”
And modest fashion’s potential market is only growing: the latest Pew Research Center figures suggest that Sub-Saharan Africa alone will account for almost a quarter – 24,3% – of the world’s projected 2,76bn Muslim population by 2050. 
And yet, not all modest fashion is restricted to the Muslim world: my Catholic wife of many years back loved the idea of the Spanish mantilla, a lace veil held high over the head with an elaborate comb often carved out of mother-of-pearl, though she was happiest in a bikini top and camo shorts; and of course one recalls denominations like the Amish with their emphasis on "plain" clothing - though Vogue hopped on that horse-cart too, running an Amish-inspired Stephen Meisel fashion series in 2009.
I had quite a debate with a friend while writing this piece as she views the term "modest fashion" as pure code for restrictive burkas and niqabs imposed on women by Salafist fascists. But that reminds me more of the reactionary British tabloids freaking out over celebrity chef Nigella Lawson wearing a "burkini" to the beach in 2011; her choice as a woman became totally irrelevant in that shit-storm.
As an atheist man from a society where "liberated" women are highly sexualised, I am at somewhat of a disadvantage in this discussion, especially as I have Muslim women friends who are definitely, totally anti-Salafist and very progressively minded but yet who wear the hijab, either because it is simply the cultural norm in countries like Morocco where they live, or because it actually does express the convergence of their faith with fashion. Surely we can be happy with what makes them comfortable in their own self-expression?


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Be Cool, Stay Sick and Turn Blue!

Although it is usually recognised that rock 'n roll emerged from the delta blues, people seldom go further back, beyond New Orleans of a century ago to examine the roots of the music in the Caribbean, on the island of Hispaniola - today Haiti & Dominican Republic - where the cultures of Central and West African slaves merged with that of Irish slaves deported as pagans by Cromwell. The story is beautifully told by Michael Ventura in his inimitable essay Hear That Long Snake Moan. Beyond the music itself, I love that some of our most common words in rock 'n roll slang are actually derived from Africa - and love repeating the story at length in bars (so you are forewarned!). Many of the terms, like "cool" for example, have a far deeper and more complex meaning that Africans should recover, understand and deploy. Partly because of this fascination, I started compiling a dictionary of words associated with rock 'n roll and the psychobilly subculture. Enjoy!

Psychobilly Dictionary (a work in progress)

Rockabilly = a form of rock ‘n roll usually played by only three musicians, wielding a stripped-down drum-kit (base, snare, side, high-hat), a steel-stringed lead guitar (sometimes even a 12-string), and a stand-up bull bass, usually played to a fast staccato rhythm.

Psychobilly = a form of Rockabilly that explicitly draws in its lyrics, mood, and style from the B-movie horror and suspense film genre of monsters and mobsters.

Billydolls = rockabilly and psychobilly dames, usually effecting either a retro ‘50s look or more outrageously morbid dress as in Vampira.

Knif = a reversal of fink, a US term meaning punk in its original sense, an undesirable person, a low-life, and like punk, adopted as a rebel self-descriptive. 

Stay sick = in typically inverted psychobilly cant, it means stay awesome, stay true to the psychobilly way of life; as with the phrase below, it has the virtue of being eight letters so readily tattooable on the knuckles. 

Turn blue = turn your back on the conservative norm, reject square life.

Square = the nature of the conventional world and those who inhabit it, unable to think outside of the box.

Stilyaga = style-hunters, Russian psychobillies of the 1950s, defiant of grey Stalinism, not to be confused with the fictional Russophile "Droogs" of A Clockwork Orange who owe more to skinhead subculture. 

Kaminari Zoku = Thunder Tribe, Japanese psychobilly gang of the 1950s, the name derived from the roar of their motorbikes. 

Canary = a female torch-singer, as in she sings like a canary. 

Dudes = city slickers, urban dandies in cool duds. 

Hep = from the Wolof term hepi, meaning in the know, streetwise, enlightened and worldly, later mutated into the be-bop term hip. 

Cats = psychobilly dudes, affecting the languid, aloof attitude common in domestic cats, the feminine of which is kittens. 

Betties = psychobilly kittens with their hair banged in Bettie Page style. 

Juke = from the Mandinka of Mali, meaning bad, in the sense of an unrighteous (ie: irreligious) person, thus a juke joint is an unrighteous place.

Boogie = derived from mbugi, a word of the Ki-Kongo of the Congo, meaning devilishly good. 

Mojo = the Ki-Kongo word for soul, meaning invested with transcendent, healing spirit power. 

Cool = from the Yoruba of Nigeria, meaning self-possessed, exhibiting grace under pressure, and a sophisticated, calm-yet-audacious representation to the world. 

Subfuck = underwhelming, nowhere near up to scratch, the opposite of cool. 

Funky = derived from the Ki-Kongo word lu-fuki, meaning a healthy sweat, as in that worked up by dancing or working on your hotrod. 

Dropped and chopped = a hotrod made from a vehicle that has had its suspension lowered to almost scrape the ground (dropped), and shortened (chopped). 

Shaved = a hotrod that has had all its door-handles and other protrusions removed to provide a smooth profile. 

Lead sled = a big gas guzzling hot-rodded sedan, dropped so that it rides like a sled, but unchopped.

Rat rod = a hotrod that is deliberately not polished up but rather left with its natural patina of rust and chipped paint, often augmented by whimsical psychobilly items such as moonshine barrels or hatchet gearshifts.

Witchdoctor = a member of the clergy, a jungle piss-take on the religious square. 

Jungle = a rhythmic African drumming technique based on the congas, signifying a wild abandon (yes, this way predates Tricky!). 


Monday, 2 October 2017

Sixties Japanese Anarchism

The anarchist movement was established in Japan in 1906 during the late Meiji Restoration, the political, social, military and economic modernisation period. Initial dramas such as the 1911 treason trial in which anarchists were executed for plotting against the "god-emperor" gave way in 1926 to the formation of an anarcho-syndicalist trade union movement, the Zenkoku Jiren, at 8,400 members, the country's third largest labour federation. The movement narrowly survived the rise of ultra-nationalism and fascism in the 1930s and world war in the 1940s, establishing a tiny 200-member Japanese Anarchist Federation in 1946. The following is a synopsis I have just finished writing of the movement in the 1960s.

In Japan, 1960 proved a hot year of struggle with miners arming themselves in a doomed bid to prevent the pit closures at Miike, while post-war parliamentary democracy endured its severest crisis of confidence so far when the ruling Liberal Democrats backed by a strong police presence, rushed the unpopular Security Treaty, or military alliance with the USA, though the Diet in which they held two-thirds of the seats. By then, the formerly communist student Zengakuren was dominated by anarchists and Trotskyists according to Edwin O. Reischauer, but by Trotskyists, Maoists, independent Marxists and non-sect radicals and only a small current of anarchists according to Tsuzuki Chushichi. In revolt against the Security Treaty, the Socialist Party-allied Sōhyō worker’s federation  and other unions staged mass protests which brought 4 to 6-million out on strike; the Japanese Anarchist Federation (NAR) journal Kurohata (Black Flag) urged a general strike and, in synch with the Zengakuren, a shift from peaceful protest to open violence against the state. The movement faltered and failed, but as Tsuzuki notes, “belief in parliamentary democracy was now seriously shaken, and the gap between the militants and the existing left-wing parties was now unbridgeably widened…” 

Tsuzuki writes that from among the anarchist ranks at this time emerged the theorist Ōsawa Masamichi who had joined the movement after the war and who argued in the pages of Jiyū-Rengō (Libertarian Federation) which had taken over as the NAR paper, that, in Tsuzuki’s words “the upper rather than the lower, strata of the proletariat would fight for the control, rather than the ownership, of the means of production; multiplication of free associations communes rather than the seizure of political power would be the form of revolution… revolution would be cultural rather than political, and arts and education would play an important role in it.” Ōsawa’s gradualist and evolutionary approach was rightly attacked as reformist within the movement. But although the failure of the general strike sowed confusion in the Zengakuren, the outbreak of the second phase of the Vietnam War in 1965 proved electrifying to the radicalised Japanese students as it was seen as a harbinger of a coming total war, with Japan being drawn into supporting South Korea which in turn directly sent troops to fight the communists in Vietnam; anti-war sentiment fed powerfully in Japan on anti-militarist and anti-nuclear radicalism. 

A new working class organisation, the Hansenseinin-i, or Anti-War Youth Committee, drew together young trade unionists and Zengakuren students in a series of direct actions against the war; despite being founded by the Socialist Party, the Hansenseinin-i developed into a movement that took a stance against the formal politics of the Socialist Party and its Sōhyō union federation; but though it was prepared to fight in the streets, “Direct action in the factories was left in the hands of more professional revolutionaries, the anarchists,” Tsuzuki writes, in particular of the Anti-Vietnam War Direct Action Committee, or Behan-i, which consisted mostly of anarchists and which raided munitions factories in Tokyo and Nagoya, publishing details of the Japanese munitions industry as “Merchants of Death”. 

Although the Behan-i was criticised by some anarchists for offering a “prelude to terrorism” and it soon folded, it had at least raised the militant profile of the movement among the Zengakuren. By 1967, the Zengakuren had somewhat stabilised into four main blocs – the Kakumaru which was dominated by Trotskyists, the Sanpa which blended Trotskyists, expelled communists and socialists, the remnant communist Minsei, and the non-sect bloc lead by the physics graduate Yamamoto Yoshitaka whose politics were described as “self-negation”, “a subspecies of anarchism,” according to Tsuzuki, quoting Shingo Shibata. Yamamoto came from the Tōdai-Zenkyōtō, the Zenkyōtō, short for All-University Council for United Struggle, being a loose network of anti-communist radical groups that “sprang up in each storm centre” of the emergent student struggles against authoritarian university and hostel management, and other ills of a system seen by students as being a mere mass-production plant for capitalist ideology. 

By this stage, Tsazuki argues, the revolutionary student movement was influenced by the likes of the “anarchist intellectual” and Behan-i supporter Yoshimoto Takaashi, the son of a shipwright who theorised the political state as both the apex of the “evolution of religious alienation” and a pure expression of ultra-nationalism; against this, Yoshimoto proposed a classless solution in which intellectuals expressed the desires of the silent masses. Another key figure was the dissident Marxist Hani Gorō who argued for a network of autonomous socialist cities to replace the state. But, as Tsazuki cautions, despite many anarchistic calls for direct democracy and direct action, the student movement was so ideologically eclectic that it was “more nihilist than anarchist”; in fact, its unbounded extremism saw outgrowths of both terrorism like that of the Japanese Red Army, and even of neo-fascism.

In 1968, the Zengakuren was able to mobilise mass demonstrations against a proposed visit to Japan by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, against the dispossession of peasants for the construction of the new Narita airport, and against the docking at Sasebo of the US nuclear submarine Enterprise. Zengakuren radicals wearing helmets painted with their sect’s colours and wielding staves regularly clashed with heavily armed riot police, the demonstrations peaking in June with hundreds of thousands of students, workers, housewives and shopkeepers out on the streets, and about 55 universities occupied by their students. Despite the demonstrations being very orderly, with only one death reported (an accidental trampling of a female student), a nervous US government cancelled Eisenhower's visit.

In 1969, the Zenkyōtō in various “storm centres” united into a national federation – but the Japanese Anarchist Federation dissolved itself: Tsuzuki says it would seem curious to an outsider for the NAR to disband “at a time when militant students were determined to defend their ‘fortress,’ the Yasuda Auditorium at Tokyo University, against an attack by the riot police. The anarchists themselves called the dissolution ‘a deployments in the face of the enemy.’ Yet they had to admit at the same time that they had reached a deadlock in their attempts within the Federation to formulate new theories of anarchism and to hit upon new forms of organisation for the new era of direct action which they believed had begun.” Although the NAR failed, anarchism remained a persistent minority current on the Japanese ultra-left: in 1970, the Black Front Society (KSS) was founded, followed by a Libertarian Socialist Council (LSC), while the old “pure anarchist” Japanese Anarchist Club (NAK) which had been founded in its split from the NAR in 1950 continued publishing its journal Museifushugi Undō (Anarchist Movement) until 1980. 

* And for some visual ideas of what the Japanese varsity occupations looked like back then (makes the South African ones of recent years seem tame):


Friday, 29 September 2017

The Madonna's Illegitimate Daughters

This is an extract from my book A Taste of Bitter Almonds (BestRed, Cape Town, 2015) which was long-listed for the Academy of Science of South Africa's inaugural 2016 Humanities Book Award.


For me, the great untold story of South Africa is how we are, despite
three-and-a-half centuries of segregation, almost all interrelated. I’ll
never forget a coloured girlfriend of mine, tall, svelte and graceful
though she lived in a gangland ghetto, telling me how in her youth, if
anyone in her family bore a child that was fair of skin and pale of eye,
the baby would be passed on to the white side of the family because
they knew that as a ‘white’ the child stood a greater chance of leading
a privileged life. What stands out for me in her tale is not only the
emotional sacrifice of parents willing to surrender their child in the
hope of giving it a better future, but that as late as the 1970s, some
interracial families still maintained links – no doubt very clandestine
– between their differently toned wings, despite anti-miscegenation
laws aggressively enforced by the police. These linkages, which
connect the South African population across all its hues by bloodline,
are more often obscured and ignored than admitted, let alone
celebrated. Those who crossed the race line were treated as ‘race
traitors’, their audacity carrying an indelible stain of shame which
endures to this day.
Though as an anarchist I am no fan of bourgeois democracy, one
has to recognise the good when one sees it and give credit where
it is due, and James Selfe, an MP of the liberal Democratic Alliance
(DA), has submitted to Parliament what I think is a brilliant Private
Member’s Bill: under the rules, individual MPs are allowed to submit
such Bills if given the green light by the Speaker. Selfe’s Bill, if passed
into law, would see all convictions under apartheid laws that would
be unconstitutional today expunged from the record. The positive
effects of such an Act are easy to underestimate. Not only will it affect
prominent figures such as hugely respected veteran journalist Max du
Preez, who would have his ‘terrorism’ conviction for merely writing
articles expunged, allowing him at long last to travel to countries
such as the USA, but I imagine that literally thousands of poor
blacks, whose careers have been stymied by their ‘criminal’ pass law
violations under apartheid, would be able to breath a sigh of relief.
But of all the iniquitous laws on the apartheid books, none was
quite as pernicious and as sure to injure the human heart as the
Immorality Amendment Act (No. 21 of 1950). Designed to achieve the
government’s aim of maintaining white race purity, it tore families
apart and nipped great love affairs in the bud. I well remember my
former Sunday Times Durban Bureau colleague George Mahabeer, who
had given up his rock-’n-roller lifestyle as guitarist for The Flames to
settle down with Lily and raise their girls, telling me tragic tales of
stories he’d covered for the old Golden City Post about Immorality
Act trials, Security Branch raids on people’s bedrooms in their most
intimate moments, the callous display of underwear as evidence of
‘immorality’ in the courts – stories of heartbreak and suicide.
Sadly, and for reasons I fail to fathom, the Speaker of Parliament,
an ANC member, did not allow Selfe’s Bill to be debated and possibly
passed into law. It is a huge missed opportunity, and as the ‘crime’ of
lovers pitted against the state is the one that cut closest to the human
condition, I wanted to investigate Immorality Act violations up
close and personal. And yet, when I trawled through the newspaper
archives I found precious few reported cases, for convictions visited
rasskande, race shame not only on the lovers, but on the state which
convicted them as well, for it showed the permeability of apartheid’s
social walls and the failure of the racial state to contain the power
of love. Yet the trials were so traumatic and personal that unlike
political trials, where the accused had the support of a movement
fighting for democracy and where those convicted of ‘crimes’ wore
their convictions as badges of pride, the star-crossed lovers had had
their hearts torn off their sleeves, and few cared to speak of the pain.
The one landmark case that I do find in the archives, one that has
made it into the displays at the Apartheid Museum too, is the one
which cost the country some of its top talent when world-renowned
anthropologist Professor John Blacking, classified white, of
Johannesburg was convicted in 1969 of having an affair with a young
Dr Zurena Desai, classified Indian. A photograph taken outside the
court shows a handsome couple in tailored winter coats, but their
eyes are averted. Blacking and Desai emigrated to Britain to escape
the torment, but their love did not survive the trauma of the race
stigma and of exile. Blacking excelled in his field, yet Desai dropped
off the radar and I am not sure where to begin searching for her.
But there is another way into the story, and it lies in the small Free
State town of Excelsior. In those dark times – ‘evil days with stupid
laws’, as one white town official from that era potently recalls it for
me on the phone – the dorp of Excelsior, in what was then called the
Orange Free State, with a white population of only 7 000 and a tiny
township of about 150 homes, became the most infamous town in
the world. In 1971, five white men, staunch pillars of the community
from solid NP families, appeared in the dock alongside 14 black
women, accused of having broken apartheid’s race-sex law. The
world’s press had a field day over the hypocrisy of the men, and the
scandal flickered across TV screens in faraway Britain. But back in
Excelsior, there was no TV. Instead, the dolorous tones of the pipe
organ inside the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK, the Dutch
Reformed Church) echoed the gloomy sermons preaching of shame.
I’m an atheist, but as in other small towns, it is to the church that
I turn to find a starting point for my investigation and get some
direction as to whom to speak to about the old scandal. I chat in
Afrikaans to the woman organist about the history of the church
and its organ, and then about the trial that put the town on the
map. Having established a rapport, she is not shy to direct me to
the home of congregant Magrietha Bezuidenhout, who lives nearby
in a house as neat as a pin, with a small, well-maintained garden.
I call at the gate, introduce myself in old-school style, using
the formal term of address ‘U’ for ‘you’, as I was taught to do as a
boy. Bezuidenhout is clearly not pleased to have me there: I am an
unwelcome guest, summoning up ghosts from a past she would
rather had remained buried with her late husband Adam, a farmer,
whom she committed to the earth seven years ago. But her Christian
hospitality forbids her from turning me away, so she lets me inside
her voorkamer, the front room of most traditional Afrikaner homes in
which guest are entertained. The place is immaculate, with polished
wooden floors and furniture, and china in glass display cabinets
with carved claw-and-ball feet. Bezuidenhout sits ramrod straight
with tension in her chair, her steel-grey hair neatly coiffed and her
eyes unblinking as she stares at me through round spectacles that are
twenty years out of date. Gently on my side, suspiciously on hers, we
delicately negotiate her story; she doesn’t want to say anything at all,
but we soon agree that I’ll be allowed to convey the main points she
wants to get across, because of her children.
There was a time, almost four decades ago, when the outside
world – in a cacophony of flashbulbs and TV cameras – callously
intruded on her placid life as a farmer’s wife, whose days were
spent eyeing the eroded horizon for signs of rain. For Magrietha’s
heavy-drinking husband was among the white accused in the
Immorality Trial. Both he and one of his co-accused, a butcher named
Calitz who had fathered a child with one of his black workers, tried
to take their lives. Calitz died, but Adam Bezuidenhout survived the
suicide attempt, shooting his eye out in the process. Nursed back to
health by a forgiving Magrietha, he sobered up and rebuilt his life
as a good husband, father and farmer. Still, four decades later, the
aftermath of Adam’s indiscretion is clearly etched in the lines around
Bezuidenout’s pursed mouth. She is very proud of her children, that
they succeeded despite the stain on their father’s name – for it is this
last that concerns her most, that her children can make their way in
the world untainted by the sins of their father.
Maintaining her composure through sheer force of will, she tells
me, ‘It’s very heartbreaking. I don’t want to reopen old wounds.
It’s all in the past now. As a Christian, God has helped me to make
peace with it.’ But with some 12 children having resulted from those
illicit liaisons 37 years ago, true peace has proven elusive for those
residents of Excelsior with tangled bloodlines. On the phone, local
farmer Johnny van Riet, the son of Alan Paton’s friend Jean Baptist
van Riet who died last year aged 101, tells me that back in 1970–1971,
shamefaced residents of Excelsior changed their vehicles’ OXE
number plates to OT for Thaba’Nchu – anywhere but the town that
had become nicknamed ‘Sexcelsior’.
The population of Excelsior’s township, Mahlatswetsa, has
now swelled to about 25 000, while the dorp’s white population has
dwindled. Most of the accused are long gone. But some, like Calitz’s
former lover and their child, still dwell there. And so does the pain.
Strangely, the Excelsior trial – which was halted in mid-stream by
Orange Free State attorney-general Percy Yutar in order to try to
stop the media circus – did little to curb cross-race sexual relations
in subsequent years.
I travel to Mahlatswetsa, just outside of town, where I ask
librarian Michael Tladi where I can find Senki Mokgethi, on whose
mother Corina the writer Zakes Mda based the character Poppie in
his 2002 book The Madonna of Excelsior.56 The book, which conflates
Corina’s true story with the 1971 trial, is in great demand in the
township, says Tladi, but is barely spoken of in the white dorp. In
the 1970s, Senki’s father was a post office worker in another town
who came home twice a year. Corina worked as a maid in the home
of a local white man who let out a room to an Afrikaner policeman.
When Senki was about 12 or 13 years old, Corina would give him
letters to take to the white policeman. The man in turn gave him
money for his mother.
‘I realised something was going on when my sister Kedimetse was
born in 1978,’ Mokgethi, now 44, tells me when I find him at home,
after I’ve negotiated with him to get him to tell his story. ‘She was a
white person, with light skin and straight hair. Lots of people here
had relationships with white guys. Excelsior was a poor town. Most of
our men were working in the mines, and there were all these women
around who were suffering. These white guys used an opportunity. It
was abuse. If you love someone, you marry them.’ But racially mixed
marriages were outlawed in 1949 and all sexual relations between
the races the following year; the black women and their illegitimate
babies were abandoned. ‘That white guy who abused my mother,
where is he? The last time I saw him was in 1978 during my mother’s
expectancy. I heard he had died, that he had committed suicide.’
People convicted under the Immorality Act are still, outrageously,
regarded legally as criminals – and with mixed marriages a rarity
outside the bubble-world of the media, arts and politics, are still
often social outcasts. I agree to put Mokgethi in touch with Zakes
Mda, who is now lecturing in the US. Mda’s book and a 2004 TV
retrospective also ensured that the pain never went away, Mokgethi
tells me bitterly. ‘Some people don’t think before they say things.’


Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The woman guerrilla commander who liberated Ukraine

Ukrainian peasant revolutionary anarchist Nestor Makhno quite rightly occupies a special place in the hearts of the oppressed, as his Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine, which peaked at 110,000 fighters in September 1919, fought and defeated German and Austro-Hungarian imperialist occupying forces, Ukrainian nationalists, White reactionaries, and anti-Semitic pogromists - before being betrayed by the Bolsheviks whose revolution his forces had quite literally saved from extinction. But it was a woman guerrilla leader, Maria (Maroussia) Nikiforova, who paved the way for the Ukrainian Revolution of 1918-1921, a social revolution that, despite being beset on all sides by enemies, is one of the most powerful expressions of the anarchist idea in practice.over an area encompassing some 7-million people.

In January 1918, Nikivorova and her anarchist Black Guard formed a “Free Combat Druzhina,” the latter word approximating Fellowship, but referring to a band of warrior equals. It was a considerable force, consisting of an armoured train with two artillery pieces, its own cavalry and infantry detachments, five armoured cars, and fast horse-towed machine-gun carts called tatchankas. The Free Combat Druzhina installed revolutionary soviets consisting of anarchists, Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries in the cities of Kharkiv, Aleksandrovsk and Yekaterinoslav, laying the groundwork not only for the Revolution in those cities, but also for the Makhnovist army which would soon arise. These were not slender victories for Aleksandrovsk alone had a 1917 population of 52,000 and possessed huge industrial works, while Yekaterinoslav and Kharkiv were larger still.

The worker-run Railway Committees which ran the trains were mostly sympathetic to the anarchist cause and both Nikiforova and Makhno would make use of the railways to counter troop deployments by the reactionaries. The railways were also important transmitters of anarchist ideas and practices via the revolutionaries that rode the rails - and suggests deeper research needs to be undertaken into Makhnovist links with the IWW-styled coal miners in the Donbass and with a smaller but almost identical movement in Siberia, far on down the Trans-Siberian line. At the end of 1918, the Bolsheviks traitorously arrested Nikiforova, disarmed her Druzhina  and attempted to have her shot, but she was exonerated in a revolutionary tribunal and was restored to her command. She was shot on 16 September 1919 by Whites after being captured in Sevastopol on a clandestine sabotage mission. It is only since Malcolm Archibald's groundbreaking 2007 biography Atamansha that Nikiforova has started to regain her proper place in revolutionary historiography. 

The armoured train Zamurets, captured by the revolutionaries and renamed Orlik, is the type of train that gave the Free Combat Druzhina its mobility and striking force.