Black Flag: Bulletin of the Anarchist Black Cross

I’ve been reading over some old issues of Black Flag, the English anarchist zine.

Volume 1 Number 1 was published on July 19, 1968 as the ‘Bulletin of the Anarchist Black Cross’, and includes on the front cover the following statement — reminiscent of Australian anarchist Chummy Fleming’s remarks — by Emile Henry:

I know my head will not be the last to fall. You will add other names to the list of the men you’ve killed. You have sent us to the gallows in Chicago, to the block in Germany, you have strangled us in Jerez, sent us before the firing squad in Barcelona, guillotined us in Montbrison and Paris, but you will never be able to destroy anarchy.

Its roots are too deep; it comes out of your rotten society and destroys it, it is a violent reaction against established order. It represents the equalitarian and libertarian aspirations that are rising to crush present-day authority; it is everywhere and it cannot be suppressed. It will end by destroying you.

It also contains an editorial and essay on Makhno’s “Black Cross” by Albert Meltzer. In order to satiate the interests of the one, probably fictional, person in addition to myself who cares, here it is:

It is fifty years since Nestor Makhno organised units of the Black Cross, originally intended as field-working units similar to those of the Red Cross (as used elsewhere in Russia, described in this issue). The Black Cross units in various cities of the Ukraine were for purposes of workers’ self-defence, as well as for purely “ambulance” type activity. The use of Cossacks, the prevalence of White Guards, pogromists, as well as the growing Red Army, made it necessary for city dwellers to be able to protect themselves in the streets.

They wore no particular uniform except that, to enable themselves to be recognised at times of violence in the streets, they wore denim overalls with a recognisable armband. Their job was to organise resistance to sudden pogroms, whether the conventional Czarist pogrom, or the sudden onslaught of Red or White Guards.

Those who think of movements for self-defence purely in terms that we think of them in the West today (largely legalistic, like the Council for Civil Liberties, excellent though such a body is for its specific function) will find it surprising that a body organised solely for defence of prisoners, and for the protection of workers in their homes and factories, should have become one of the major adjuncts to the fighting forces of Makhno’s peasant army. It was, indeed, the first urban army to be formed in the Ukraine; by 1920, when the Whites were an organised body aided by foreign intervention, the city-Makhnovistas, the Black Cross, was the only force in the towns that could organise military self-defence along with the peasants. They faced three enemies, Petliura in the West, the Bolsheviks in the North, and the monarchists in the East and South. But they were able to defend the cities though they were never a mobile force like the peasant army.

Most certainly, in a revolutionary situation such as existed in Germany when the Nazis were rising to power, it is highly necessary to have a movement that is able to resist. The mere provocation of the State by protest, when one can only be crushed by the full powers at the disposal of the State, is not enough. It is necessary, when fighting dictatorship, to be able to oppose a monolithic force to it that can fight back when attacked.

The Ukrainian “Black Cross” arose out of purely defensive needs, in order to protect workers occupying their places of work, to defend demonstrations in the streets, and so on. Its form of organisation might have been that of the Red Cross (even that of the Salvation Army, as one observer sneered!) but it was able to adapt that form of organisation into a fighting force.

“And Kropotkin said that in his view, the Royal Lifeboat Institution and the International Red Cross were examples of Mutual Aid, and presumably, of Anarchism!”

So runs the gentle joke of many a don commenting on Kropotkin’s teachings. And he omits to point out that in the very same paragraph that Kropotkin says this, he grants the fact that “princes of the blood” and others have conferred their patronage on such organisations, after they have shown that they are socially acceptable, but that the actual work done by the lifeboatmen or the Red Cross volunteers is a supreme example of the principle of Mutual Aid between mankind. The lifeboatman does not count the profit; he does not argue with the sinking captain for commercial advantage (though he could, and capitalist morality would justify his doing so?).

The RED CROSS founded by Dunant has saved innumerable lives in warfare between nations. We are far from criticising it; but depending as it does on governmental tolerance, it has its limitations. It can arbitrate as regards the sick and wounded and imprisoned of, say, Germany and England; it cannot help those of Russia and Japan because the governments of those countries do not care a damn about their subjects and (at least in the Second World War) were beyond the point where they need care for public opinion. (Even the Germans would have protested had the Nazis left German POWs to their fate; but the Samurais of Nippon and the Soviet regarded them as “traitors”.)

In the same way, it was always impossible to ask the Red Cross to look after the sick and wounded and imprisoned of the Class War. In a Civil War (e.g. Spain 1936) they might do so; but not in cases where there was no declared civil war. This gap in the Red Cross became particularly noticeable in Czarist Russia. The rulers of that country had in effect declared a civil war against their own subjects. In particular they used the Cossacks to murder the Jews. The Jewish population was a hostage to the revolution. If the Russian workers protested, the Czar diverted their revolutionary aims by organising a pogrom. It was at once an example to the Russian masses, and a warning as to what would happen to those who incurred official displeasure. When the “Black Hundreds” raided the Jewish districts, the police stood by. If ever the Jews resisted (and Anarchists and Bundists at times organised Self Defence Committees that fought back) the police stepped in and fought the defenders, arresting them for violent activity.

International Jewry organised its own committees for relief of the Russian Jews; but such bodies did not extend their help to the Anarchists and Bundists who had — dreadful to relate to the bourgeois sponsors of such committees — had the temerity to fight back. So a committee was formed in America, amongst Russian Jewish workers in particular, called the WORKERS RED CROSS (which changed its title after a few months to ANARCHIST RED CROSS, since the Red Cross Workers, asked them to do so to avoid confusion).

The ANARCHIST RED CROSS, centred in Chicago, raised a large amount of aid not only for the Jewish fighters in Russia but also for the entire Russian revolutionary movement. It sent field workers to Russian prisons, aided deportees and (not being bound by any convention such as the official Red Cross) also sent in illegal propaganda. The existence of such a body meant, too, that aid could speedily be sent to victims of the class war in many countries. Perhaps one day the full story of the Anarchist Red Cross will be told. (Its work was carried on for a long time after its demise by the Free Society Group of Chicago; in particular, comrades Boris Yelensky and Celia Goldberg.)

When the Russian Revolution came, the Anarchists needed their Red Cross units more than ever. The organisation set up, in many ways a continuation of the old A.R.C., was known as the Black Cross (partly to distinguish itself from the Bolshevik “Red” and partly again to save the Geneva organisation, doing good work in general relief, from embarrassment).

The Anarchist Black Cross was overwhelmed with work. The prisoners multiplied; there was no abatement in government tyranny. Alexander Berkman, expelled from Russia to Berlin, tried to cope with the fund for Russian prisoners, when a new demand came in (for the victims of the Fascisti in Italy). The album of Kropotkin’s funeral (the last permitted non-Bolshevik demonstration in Russia, for which Anarchists were especially released from Russian jails, which we may at some time reproduce) was sold to alleviate distress amongst prisoners in Italy and Russia. With repression in Spain, the rise of the Nazis, and depression in the countries from which the money was coming, the Black Cross collapsed.

There were similar organisations from time to time (e.g. Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista, whose secretary in London was Ethel Mannin) which did good work in their time. When, however, our friend Stuart Christie was arrested in Spain, we found the lack of any organisation which could help in such a case. In particular, Amnesty did not want to know. They were prepared to take up the cases of political prisoners provided those prisoners were “innocent”, their ideal prisoner was a University professor charged with liberal thinking, who had never lifted a finger against repression in his life and had still found himself in jail.

Many comrades from many countries sent food parcels and the like to Stuart; from Germany and elsewhere, people who had never met him. (And this gave us particular satisfaction, remembering 1945, when we had organised sending food parcels to Germany, which had come from Britain, USA and even Palestine; a factor helpful in keeping many old militants alive in the post-war period.)

In prison, the Anarchists and some other political prisoners (but not the Moscow-liners, who refused to collaborate) had formed a commune in which they shared their food parcels from outside. Spanish prisons permit food and medical supplies to be sent from outside; if one relied on the prison hospital one would die neglected. But, while parsimonious, it is prepared (unlike British jails) to allow donations from outside. When Stuart returned, he knew who was in difficulties in Spain, he was indeed a “mouthpiece” of the libertarian political prisoners in Spain.

We began to send parcels, and in doing so, revived the idea of the ANARCHIST BLACK CROSS. Some start has been made to making it a permanent organisation.

It is not intended to be a charity.

It is to organise solidarity for victims of the class war.

We are sending food parcels at present but by no means wish to limit what we send (whether to Spain or elsewhere?) merely to food or medical supplies, vital as these are to those concerned. If the governments would recognise our work, we would confine it to humanitarian purposes and relief of prisoners.

As it is, we deem it part of our task to help with other facets of the struggle; in places where we can provide effective solidarity.

In some parts of the world Anarchists are able to work without undue interruption by authoritarian forces; and they can also be isolated geographically from participating in the more active struggle such as exists in Spain.

Their aid is needed. We hope to bridge the gap.

On Stuart Christie, see:
On Albert Meltzer (1920–1996), read his autobiography, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels, AK Press, 1996.
Brighton Anarchist Black Cross (links page).

(I also recently picked up a copy of 325 (#6, January 2009) . . a data network for direct action . . a media framework for social war . . the refusal of fixed territory . . an insurgent anti-prison zine of social war and anarchy . . it’s a neat-o publication which, like most other @ projects, really needs and deserves your solidarity.)

The Italian Effect (c.1980)*

Black Flag Volume VI, Number 6 (1981) contains a brief article on Italy, a letter from ‘Some comrades of Anarchismo‘: ‘Anarchy/Autonomy’. I’ve searched (a little), but I’ve read very little about the relationship between the anarchist movement in Italy and the autonomist movement which emerged there in the 1960s and 1970s, so this snippet is interesting.

Following the various blitz operations carried out by the anti-terrorist divisions of the carabinieri and the police, some of which succeeded and others fortunately failed, the situation of struggle in Italy has become more schematic in recent times.

One of the clamorous attempts that failed was the one against the comrades involved in the review Anarchismo, which began with the arrest of twenty-one comrades and finished with one sentence only (Massimo Gaspari), for possession of explosives. The others, as is known, have all been released and charges dropped due to complete lack of evidence against them. Only in the case of the comrade Alfredo Bonanno has the charge of propaganda against the State remained.

In the article published in No.3 of your paper [‘Italy: Assault on Anarchism’] there appeared to be a certain confusion concerning the Italian revolutionary movement. The reaction against the provocation initiated by the secret services and the Ministry of the Interior and police forces with the Piazza Fontana massacres and teh anarchist-hunt at the end of 1969 pushed many comrades towards an awareness of the problems of revolutionary organization.

In this period Potere Operiao (Worker Power) gave their maximum contribution to the struggles and to the elaboration of an insurrectional theory. Then, followed in this by various other formations of post ’68 origins, they dissolved into the so-called movement, taking with them the contribution of their own experience and their own militants’ actions of struggle.

It is in this period in which Collettivo metropolitano was formed in Milan, from which the first military formations of the Brigate rosse originate.

Revolutionary practice meanwhile (we are around the years 1976–1977, before the Convegno do Bologna, a meeting against repression where over 100,000 comrades were present) expanded with large mass demonstrations and bloody battles with the police.

At the Bologna meeting, where the revolutionary forces confronted each other with all their various differences, but where the last moment of a historic period of the class struggle in Italy was signed, the area of autonomy was present in two different currents:
a) the current of autonomy as a movement, represented by the theses of the comrades of Rome, supporting autonomy as the absence of whatever closed and centralized structure.
b) current of autonomy as a party, represented by the theses of the comrades of Padova and Milan, who supported the formation of an “autonomy party” of a strictly leninist character.

Both of these currents can be defined as being of marxist-leninist observance, even though breaks with the orthodox tradition have become more evident, and re-evaluation of the function of the minority organization including the clandestine one.

Still at the Bologna meeting, the different forces of the anarchist movement were also present, in a more or less bilinear component: on the one side the various expressions of educationism, pacifism, pluralism, individualism, etc.; on the other side a numerically inferior but more competitive side, who insisted on a greater penetration in the reality of the struggles, territorial roots in the interventions made by comrades, and the organization of armed and clandestine struggle, revolutionary violence and insurrection.

But both these tendencies shared suspicions towards all the more or less marxist thesis, and also agreed in the rejection of any ideological identification with the area of autonomy. For both these tendencies in the anarchist movement the theory and practice of struggle continue to be those of the libertarian tradition.

The fact that on the operational level of the struggle anarchists and autonomists may sometimes have acted together should not necessarily lead one to believe that the substantial differences that divide these two parts of the Italian revolutionary movement have been overcome. each has contributed within the limits of their own operative possibilities, remaining independent as organizational structures and, more obviously, as theoretical heritages.

We consider that this clarification is sufficient to show more clearly the relationship existing today between anarchists and the area of autonomy in Italy.

A final clarification seems necessary to us. In the article published by Black Flag on the blitz against Anarchismo reference was made to Alfredo Bonanno’s book La Gioia Armata, translating the title to The Joy of Arms. We think that this translation of the title is not only literally mistaken, but could also create a mistaken impression and distract the interest of comrades from a book which is far from being a hymn to violence but is a thoroughly examined critical inquiry into the problem of armed struggle. The correct translation which we are bringing to comrades’ notice is therefore Armed Joy.

Funnily enough, the 325 collective makes available the English translation of Bonanno’s book on its site [PDF].

*The title given to an academic conference in Sydney in September 2004:

After several decades during which the humanities in Australia and globally have been strongly influenced by French thought, in the new millennium the work of Italian thinkers is having a profound impact upon intellectual activity. The most notable signs of this “Italian effect” are the widespread interest in the work of Giorgio Agamben and the popularity of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire, but this is only to scratch the surface of the productivity of contemporary Italian thought across a wide variety of disciplines.

This conference aims to address the current and potential international impact of radical Italian thought, focusing not only on Negri and Agamben but also on the work of Franco Berardi (Bifo), Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato and others.

Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000) contains one reference to ‘anarchists’ (p.350):

You are just a bunch of anarchists, the new Plato on the block will finally yell at us. That is not true. We would be anarchists if we were not to speak (as did Thrasymacus and Callicles, Plato’s immortal interlocutors) from the standpoint of a materiality constituted in the networks of productive cooperation, in other words, from the perspective of a humanity that is constructed productively, that is constituted through the “common name” of freedom. No, we are not anarchists but communists who have seen how much repression and destruction of humanity have been wrought by liberal and socialist big governments. We have seen how all this is being re-created in imperial government, just when the circuits of productive cooperation have made labour power as a whole capable of constituting itself in government.

I’m still trying to understand that one.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
This entry was posted in Anarchism, History, Media. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Black Flag: Bulletin of the Anarchist Black Cross

  1. felix says:

    Maybe I am, but I appreciate it regardless.

  2. milgram says:

    I’m not fictional and I thought this was great. Where did you get hold of it?

    More please.

  3. @ndy says:

    felix… the cat?



    I got hold of it from my local anarchist library, which will be re-opening soon at the Melbourne Anarchist Resource Centre. It has a large collection of (mostly English-language) anarchist zines, including most issues of Black Flag from 1968 (#1) through to the 1990s, as well as most of the other major anarchist titles from this period.

    Reading over some of the many issues of Black Flag, I’m really impressed by the scope and quality of the writing — in some respects, it tends to shit all over most contemporary anarchist publications (that I’m aware of anyways). It also contains extensive documentation on a vast range of social and political struggles of the period.

  4. Pingback: Ashes, teabags, etc « Poumista

  5. Benny Rudeboy says:

    No surprises here…Neo-Nazi fuckwits seem to be only good at killing those who are obviously weaker than them, in this case a 14 year old girl.

    Fucking pathetic. Nothing to it really they are just fucking losers. Would like to see them try that shit here in Melbourne.

  6. Billy Bollox says:

    the link you gave to 325 (#6, January 2009) is a bit strange.

    the website has a picture of a blondie with a fake smile and a school bag – no way is she an anarchist.

    I have seen female anarchists and they look nothing like the woman on that site, they are overweight with spikey purple hair and a permanent scowl.

    fix it.

  7. Billy Bollox says:

    i seem to recall a protest at a tory conference in Brighton that was quite successful.

    mind you, the tories didnt listen after that protest so fuck knows why they would listen to some hare brained kids wearing hoodies.

    if the advert said “we are farmers from south armagh” it would have more impact…so to speak.

  8. @ndy says:


    also, kinda imagine the kids what are protesting prolly do so w/o any expectation that the tories will jolly well sit up and take notice.

    fail bomb plot is fail… tho’ a turning point?

  9. Pingback: Notes on Anarchism (Albert Meltzer) | slackbastard

  10. Pingback: Mike Davis talks about the “Heroes of Hell” | slackbastard

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.