Appendix - The Symbols of Anarchy

1 What is the history of the Black Flag?
2 Why the red-and-black flag?
3 Where does the circled A come from?


Anarchism has always stood deliberately for a broad, and at times vague, political platform. The reasoning is sound; blueprints create rigid dogma and stifle the creative spirit of revolt. Along the same lines and resulting in the same problems, Anarchists have rejected the "disciplined" leadership that is found in many other political groupings on the Left. The reasoning for this is also sound; leadership based on authority is inherently hierarchical. It seems to follow logically that since Anarchists have shied away from anything static, that they would also shy away from the importance of symbols and icons.

While this is may be an explanation of why the origination of Anarchist symbols is elusive and inconclusive, the fact is, Anarchists have used symbolism in their revolt against the State and Capital, not only the black flag, but also the circled-A and the red-and-black flag. Circled-As are spray-painted on walls and under bridges all over the world; punks display them on their jackets and scrawl them into half-dried cement. Black and red-and-black flags were resurrected in Russia and eastern Europe after the fall of state socialism and continue to fly in most parts of the world.

Therefore, the anarchist movement has various symbols associated with it. The most famous of these are the circled-A, the black flag and the red-and-black flag. This appendix tries to indicate the history of these symbols. Ironically enough, the one of the original anarchist symbols was the red flag (indeed, as anarchist historians Nicolas Walter and Heiner Becker note, "Kropotkin always preferred the red flag" [Peter Kropotkin, Act for Yourselves, p. 128]). This is unsurprising as anarchism is a form of socialism and came out of the general socialist and labour movements. Common roots would imply common imaginary. However, as mainstream socialism developed in the nineteenth century into either reformist social democracy or the state socialism of the revolutionary Marxists, anarchists developed their own images of revolt, starting with the Black Flag.

In this appendix we present a short history of the more famous symbols, namely the Black and the Red-and-Black Flags as well as the circled a. We would like to point out that this appendix is based on Jason Wehling's 1995 essay Anarchism and the History of the Black Flag. Needless to say, this appendix does not cover all anarchists symbols. For example, recently the red-and-black flag has become complemented by the green-and-black flag of eco-anarchism. Other popular symbols include the IWW inspired "Wildcat," the Black Rose and the ironic "little black bomb" (among others). However, we concentrate here on the three most famous ones.

1 What is the history of the Black Flag?

There are ample accounts of the use of black flags by anarchists. Probably the most famous, was Nestor Makhno's partisans during the Russia Revolution. Under the black banner, his army routed a dozen armies and kept a large portion of the Ukraine free from concentrated power for a good couple years (see Peter Arshinov's History of the Makhnovist Movement for details of this important movement). On the black flag was embroidered "Liberty of Death" and "The Land to the Peasant, The Factories to the Workers." [Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 475] In the 1910s, Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary, used a black flag with a skull & crossbones & the Virgin on it -- it also had "Land & Liberty" as a slogan ("Tierra y Libertad"). In 1925, the Japanese anarchists formed the Black Youth League and, in 1945, when the anarchist federation reformed, their journal was named Kurohata (Black Flag) [Op. Cit., p. 525-6]. More recently, Parisian students carried black (and red) flags during the massive General Strike of 1968 as well as at the America Students for a Democratic Society national convention of the same year. At about the same time, the British based magazine Black Flag was started and is still going strong. Today, if you go to any sizeable demonstration you will usually see the Black Flag raised by the anarchists present.

But the anarchists' black flag originated much earlier than this. The first account is actually unknown. It seems that this credit is reserved for Louise Michel, famous participant in the Paris Commune of 1871. According to Anarchist historian George Woodcock, Michel flew the black flag on March 9, 1883, during demonstration of the unemployed in Paris, France. With 500 strong, Michel at the lead and shouting "Bread, work, or lead!", they pillaged three baker's shops before being arrested by the police [George Woodcock, Anarchism, pp. 251]. No earlier reports can be found of Anarchists and the black flag.

Not long after, the black symbol made it's way to America. Paul Avrich reports that on November 27, 1884, the black flag was displayed in Chicago at an Anarchist demonstration. According to Avrich, August Spies, one of the famous Haymarket martyrs, "noted that this was the first occasion on which [the black flag] had been unfurled on American soil" [Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, pp. 144-145].

On a more dreary note, February 13, 1921 was the date that marked the end of black flags in Soviet Russia. On that day, Peter Kropotkin's funeral took place in Moscow. Masses of people whose march stretched for miles, carried black banners that read, "Where there is authority there is no freedom." [Paul Avrich, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, p. 26] It seems that black flags didn't appear in Russia until the founding of the Chernoe Zhania ("black banner") movement in 1905. Only two weeks after Kropotkin's funeral march, the Kronstadt rebellion broke out and anarchism was erased from Soviet Russia for good.

While the events above are fairly well known, as has been related, the exact origin of the black flag is not. What is known is that a large number of Anarchist groups in the early 1880s adopted titles associated with black. In July of 1881, the Black International was founded in London. This was an attempt to reorganise the Anarchist wing of recently dissolved First International [George Woodcock, Op. Cit., p. 212-4]. In October 1881, a meeting in Chicago lead to the International Working People's Association being formed in North America. This organisation, also known as the Black International, affiliated to the London organisation. [Clifford Harper, Anarchy: A Graphic Guide, p. 76, Woodcock, Op. Cit., p. 393] These two conferences are immediately followed by Michel's demonstration (1883) and the black flags in Chicago (1884).

Further solidifying this period (circa early 1880s) as the birth of the symbol is the name of a short lived French Anarchist publication: "Le Drapeau Noir" (The Black Flag). According to Roderick Kedward, this Anarchist paper existed for a few years dating sometime before October 1882, when a bomb was thrown into a cafe in Lyons [The Anarchists: the men who shocked an era p. 35]. Backing up this theory, Avrich states that in 1884, the black flag "was the new anarchist emblem" [Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, p. 144]. In agreement, Murray Bookchin reports that "in later years, the Anarchists were to adopt the black flag" when speaking of the Spanish Anarchist movement in June, 1870 [Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists, p. 57]. At that time, anarchists widely used the red flag. It appears obvious (though not conclusive) that this is the period that the black flag bonded with Anarchism. However, use of the red flag did not instantly die out. Thus we find Kropotkin writing Words of a Rebel (published in 1885, but written between 1880 and 1882) of "anarchist groups . . . rais[ing] the red flag of revolution." As Woodcock notes, the "black flag was not universally accepted by anarchists at this time. Many, like Kropotkin, still thought of themselves as socialists and of the red flag as theirs also." [Words of a Rebel, p. 75, p. 225] In addition, we find the Chicago anarchists using both black and red flags all through the 1880s.

The general drift away from the red flag towards the black must be placed in the historical context. During the later part of the 1870s and in the 1880s the socialist movement was changing. Marxist social democracy was being the dominant socialist trend, with libertarian socialism going into decline in many areas. Thus the red flag was increasingly associated with the authoritarian and statist (and increasingly reformist) side of the socialist movement. In order to distinguish themselves from other socialists, the use of the black flag makes perfect sense. Not only was it an accepted symbol of working class revolt, it shared the same origins in the 1831 Lyons revolt [Bookchin, The Third Revolution, vol. 2, p. 65].

It seems that figuring out when the connection was made is easier than finding out why, exactly, black was chosen. The Chicago "Alarm", which is right from the horses mouth, stated that the black flag is "the fearful symbol of hunger. misery and death" [Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, p. 144]. Bookchin asserts that the black flag is the "symbol of the workers misery and as an expression of their anger and bitterness." [Op. Cit., p. 57]. Historian Bruce C. Nelson also notes that the Black Flag was considered "the emblem of hunger" when it was unfurled in Chicago in 1884. [Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago's Anarchists, p. 141, p. 150]

Along these lines, Albert Meltzer maintains that the association between the black flag and working class revolt "originated in Rheims [France] in 1831 ('Work or Death') in an unemployed demonstration." [Albert Meltzer, The Anarcho-Quiz Book, p. 49] In fact he goes on to assert that it was Michel's action in 1883 that solidified the association. The links from revolts in France to anarchism are even stronger. As Murray Bookchin records, "[i]n 1831, the silk-weaving artisans. . . rose in armed conflict to gain a better tarif, or contract, from the merchants. For a brief period they actually took control of the city, under red and black flags -- which made their insurrection a memorable event in the history of revolutionary symbols. Their use of the word mutuelisme to denote the associative disposition of society that they preferred made their insurrection a memorable event in the history of anarchist thought as well, since Proudhon appears to have picked up the word from them during his brief stay in the city in 1843-4." [The Third Revolution, vol. 2, p. 157]

Kropotkin himself states that its use continued in the French labour movement after this uprising. He notes that the Paris Workers "raised in June [1848] their black flag of 'Bread or Labour'" [Act for Yourselves, p. 100]

The use of the black flag by anarchists, therefore, is an expression of their roots and activity in the labour movement in Europe, particularly in France. The anarchist adoption of the Black Flag by the anarchist movement in the 1880s reflects its use as "the traditional symbol of hunger, poverty and despair" and that it was "raised during popular risings in Europe as a sign of no surrender and no quarter." [Walter and Becker, Act for Yourselves, p. 128]

This is unsurprising given the nature of anarchist politics. Just as anarchists base their ideas on actual working class practice, they would also base their symbols on those created by the practice. For example, Proudhon as well as taking the term "mutualism" from radical workers also argued that co-operative "labour associations" had "spontaneously, without prompting and without capital been formed in Paris and in Lyon. . . the proof of it [mutualism, the organisation of credit and labour]. . . lies in current practice, revolutionary practice." He considered his ideas, in other words, to be an expression of working class self-activity. [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 59-60] Indeed, according to K. Steven Vincent, there was "close similarity between the associational ideal of Proudhon . . . and the program of the Lyon Mutualists" and that there was "a remarkable convergence [between the ideas], and it is likely that Proudhon was able to articulate his positive program more coherently because of the example of the silk workers of Lyon. The socialist ideal that he championed was already being realised, to a certain extent, by such workers." [Piere-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism, p. 164] Other anarchists have made similar arguments concerning anarchism being the expression of tendencies within society and working class struggle (for Kropotkin see section J.5) and so the using of a traditional workers' symbol would be a natural expression of this aspect of anarchism.

But there are other possibilities.

Black is a very powerful colour, or anti-colour as it were. The 1880s were a time of extreme anarchist activity. The Black International saw the introduction of "propaganda by the deed" as an anarchist platform.

Historically black has been associated with blood -- dried blood specifically -- like the red flag. So while it is tied to working class rebellion, it was also a symbol of the nihilism of the period (a nihilism generated by the mass slaughter of Communards by the French ruling class after the fall of the Paris Commune of 1871). It is this slaughter of the Communards which may also point to the use of the Black Flag by anarchists. Black "is the colour of mourning [at least in Western cultures], it symbolises our mourning for dead comrades, those whose lives were taken by war, on the battlefield (between states) or in the streets and on the picket lines (between classes)." [Chico, "letters", Freedom, vol. 48, No. 12, p. 10] Given the 25 000 dead in the Commune, many of them anarchists and libertarian socialists, the use of the Black Flag by anarchists after this event would make sense. Sandino, the Nicaraguan libertarian socialist (whose use of the red-and-black colours we discuss in the next section) also said that black stood for mourning ("Red for liberty; black for mourning; and the skull for a struggle to the death" [Donald C. Hodges, Sandino's Communism, p. 24]).

There is a possible philosophical rationale behind the use the colour black. Another reason why anarchists turned to the black flag could be because of its nature as a sign of "negation". Many of the writers on the Black Flag have mentioned this aspect, for example Howard J. Ehrlich argues that black "is a shade of negation. The black flag is the negation of all flags." [Reinventing Anarchy, Again, p. 31] As a symbol of negation, the black flag fits nicely in with some of Bakunin's ideas -- particularly his ideas on progress. Being influenced by Hegel, Bakunin accepted Hegel's dialectical method but always stressed that the negative side was motive force within it (see Robert M. Culter's introduction to The Basic Bakunin for details). Thus he defines progress as the negation of the initial position (for example, in God and the State, he argues that "[e]very development . . . implies the negation of its point of departure" [p. 48]). What better sign to signify the anarchist movement than one which is the negation of all other flags, this negation signifying the movement into a higher form of social life? Thus the black flag could symbolise the negation of existing society, of all existing states, and so paves the way for a new society, a free one. However, whether this was a factor in the adoption of the black flag or just a coincidence we cannot tell at this moment.

There is also an interesting connection between the black flag and pirates. There is an unconfirmed report that Louise Michel, while lead the women's battalion during the Paris Commune of 1871, may have flown the skull and crossbones. But the association may go further.

Pirates were seen as rebels, as free spirits, and often ruthless killers. While pirates varied a great deal, many had an elected Captain of the pirate ship. In some cases the captain wasn't even male, which was very unusual for the time. He or she was "subject to instant recall", and life on board a pirate ship was certainly more democratic than life on board ships of the British, American or French Navies -- let alone a merchant ship.

For pirates, the black flag was a symbol of death; the give-away being a skull and bones on black. A sign equivalent with "surrender or die!" It was intended to scare their victims into submitting without a fight. It operated in much the same way as Ghengis Khan's armies.

Many others also adopted the black flag as a sign of "surrender or die!". A Confederate officer named Quantrill in during the American Civil War fought under the black flag. He was known as unwilling to show mercy to his opponents and he did not expect any mercy in return. Also, General Santa Anna of Mexico was a notorious flyer of the black flag. He even flew them at the Alamo. Accompanying the black banner, he had his buglers play a call named "The Deguello," which was a call that meant "no quarter will be given" (Take No Prisoners). This use of the black flag was echoed by the America anarchists of the Black International. While it "was interpreted in anarchist circles as the symbol of death, hunger and misery" it was "also said to be the 'emblem of retribution'" and in a labour procession in Cincinnati in January 1885, "it was further acknowledged to be the banner of working-class intransigence, as demonstrated by the words 'No Quarter' inscribed on it." [Donald C. Hodges, Sandino's Communism, p. 21 -- see also Avrich, Op. Cit., p. 82]

While Khan, Quantrill and General Santa Anna are not connected to anarchism in the slightest -- pirates, on the other hand, are more complicated. They were seen as rebels. Rebels without a state, owing allegiance to no code of law except whatever makeshift rules they improvised amongst themselves. Certainly pirates were not consciously anarchist, and often acted no better than barbarians. But what is important is how they were seen. Their symbol was the embodiment of rebellion and the spirit of lawlessness and rebellion. They were hated by the ruling class.

This may have been enough for the starving and unemployed to pick up the black flag in revolt. In fact, one could quickly get a hold of a piece of red or black cloth in a riot. Getting hold of the material was easy. Painting a complicated symbol on it took time. So an improvised rebel flag raised in a riot was likely to be of just one colour. Hence it follows nicely that the black flag flew without the skull and bones because it was necessarily make-shift for a riot.

To this question of the black flag, Howard Ehrlich has a great passage in his book Reinventing Anarchy, Again. It is worth quoting at length:

"Why is our flag black? Black is a shade of negation. The black flag is the negation of all flags. It is a negation of nationhood which puts the human race against itself and denies the unity of all humankind. Black is a mood of anger and outrage at all the hideous crimes against humanity perpetrated in the name of allegiance to one state or another. It is anger and outrage at the insult to human intelligence implied in the pretences, hypocrisies, and cheap chicaneries of governments . . . Black is also a colour of mourning; the black flag which cancels out the nation also mourns its victims the countless millions murdered in wars, external and internal, to the greater glory and stability of some bloody state. It mourns for those whose labour is robbed (taxed) to pay for the slaughter and oppression of other human beings. It mourns not only the death of the body but the crippling of the spirit under authoritarian and hierarchic systems; it mourns the millions of brain cells blacked out with never a chance to light up the world. It is a colour of inconsolable grief.

"But black is also beautiful. It is a colour of determination, of resolve, of strength, a colour by which all others are clarified and defined. Black is the mysterious surrounding of germination, of fertility, the breeding ground of new life which always evolves, renews, refreshes, and reproduces itself in darkness. The seed hidden in the earth, the strange journey of the sperm, the secret growth of the embryo in the womb all these the blackness surrounds and protects.

"So black is negation, is anger, is outrage, is mourning, is beauty, is hope, is the fostering and sheltering of new forms of human life and relationship on and with this earth. The black flag means all these things. We are proud to carry it, sorry we have to, and look forward to the day when such a symbol will no longer be necessary." [Reinventing Anarchy, Again, pp. 31-2]

2 Why the red-and-black flag?

The red-and-black flag has been associated with anarchism for some time. Murray Bookchin places the creation of this flag in Spain:

"The presence of black flags together with red ones became a feature of Anarchist demonstrations throughout Europe and the Americas. With the establishment of the CNT [in 1910], a single flag on which black and red were separated diagonally, was adopted and used mainly in Spain." [The Spanish Anarchists, p. 57]

However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the red-and-black flag spread across to other countries, particularly those with strong links to Spain (such as other Latin countries). For example, during the "Two Red Years" in Italy which culminated in the factory occupations of 1920 (see section A.5.5) the red-and-black flag was raised by workers in revolt [Gwyn A. Williams, Proletarian Order, p. 241] Similarly, Augusto Sandino, the radical Nicaraguan national liberation fighter was so inspired by the example of the Mexican anarcho-syndicalists during the Mexican revolution that he based his movement's flag on their red-and-black ones (the Sandinista's flag is divided horizontally, rather than diagonally). As historian Donald C. Hodges notes, Sandino's "red and black flag had an anarcho-syndicalist origin, having been introduced into Mexico by Spanish immigrants." Unsurprisingly, his flag was considered a "workers' flag symbolising their struggle for liberation." (Hodges refers to Sandino's "peculiar brand of anarcho-communism" suggesting that his appropriation of the flag indicated a strong libertarian theme to his politics). [Intellectual Foundations of the Nicaraguan Revolution, p. 49, p. 137, p. 19]

In the English speaking world, the use of the red-and-black flag by anarchists seems to spring from the world-wide publicity generated by the Spanish Revolution and Civil War in 1936. With CNT-FAI related information spreading across the world, the familiarity of the CNT inspired red-and-black flag also spread until it became a common anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist symbol in all countries.

For some, the red-and-black flag is associated with anarcho-syndicalism more than anarchism. As Albert Meltzer puts it, "[t]he flag of the labour movement (not necessarily only of socialism) is red. The CNT of Spain originated the red-and-black of anarchosyndicalism (anarchism plus the labour movement)." [Anarcho-Quiz Book, p. 50] Donald C. Hodges makes a similar point, when he states that "[o]n the insignia of the Mexico's House of the World Worker [the Mexican anarcho-syndicalist union], the red band stood for the economic struggle of workers against the proprietary classes, and the black for their insurrectionary struggle." [Sandino's Communism, p. 22]

George Woodcock also stresses the Spanish origin of the flag:

"The anarcho-syndicalist flag in Spain was black and red, divided diagonally. In the days of the [First] International the anarchists, like other socialist sects, carried the red flag, but later they tended to substitute for it the black flag. The black-and-red flag symbolised an attempt to unite the spirit of later anarchism with the mass appeal of the International." [Anarchism, p. 325f]

However, there is an earlier recorded use of the red-and-black flag, suggesting it was, perhaps, rediscovered by the Spanish Anarchists. In April, 1877, 26 anarchists "entered the small commune of Letino [Italy], prominently displaying the red and black anarchist flag" in a failed attempt to create a revolution. [T.R. Ravindranathan, Bakunin and the Italians, p. 228] George Woodcock records the same event and the same flag being used [Anarchism, p. 285] Given that the black and red flags were associated with the Lyon's uprising of 1831, perhaps this use of the red-and-black flag is not too unusual. The use of this flag does seem to have not been widespread and it was only with the founding of the CNT over 30 years later in Spain that it was used again.

Over time association with anarcho-syndicalism has become less noted, with many non-syndicalist anarchists happy to use the red-and-black flag (many anarcho-communists use the red-and-black flag, for example). It would be a good generalisation to state that social anarchists are more inclined to use the red-and-black flag than individualist anarchists are social anarchists are usually more willing to align themselves with the wider socialist and labour movements than individualists (in modern times at least).

Thus the red-and-black flag comes from the experience of anarcho-syndicalism, with the black representing libertarian ideas and the red representing the labour movement. However, it has become a standard anarchist symbol as the years have went by, with the black still representing anarchy and the red social co-operation or solidarity. Thus the red-and-black flag more than any one symbol symbolises the aim of anarchism: "Liberty of the individual and social co-operation of the whole community." [Peter Kropotkin, Act for Yourselves, p. 102]

3 Where does the circled-A come from?

The circled-A is even more famous than the Black and Red-and-Black flags as an anarchist symbol (probably because it lends itself so well to graffiti). According to Peter Marshall the "circled-A" represents Proudhon's maxim "Anarchy is Order." [Demanding the Impossible p. 558] Peter Peterson also adds that the circle is "a symbol of unity and determination" which "lends support to the off-proclaimed idea of international anarchist solidarity." ["Flag, Torch, and Fist: The Symbols of Anarchism", Freedom, vol. 48, No. 11, pp. 8]

However, the origin of the "circled-A" as an anarchist symbol is less clear. Many think that it started in the 1970s punk movement, but it goes back to a much earlier period. According to Peter Marshall, "[i]n 1964 a French group, Jeunesse Libertaire, gave new impetus to Proudhon's slogan 'Anarchy is Order' by creating the circled-A a symbol which quickly proliferated throughout the world." [Op. Cit., p. 445] This is not the earliest sighting of this symbol. On November 25 1956, at its foundation in Brussels, the Alliance Ouvriere Anarchiste (AOA) adopted this symbol. Going even further, a BBC documentary on the Spanish Civil War shows an anarchist militia member with a "circled-A" clearly on the back of his helmet. Other than this, there is little know about the "circled-A"s origin.

Today the circled-A is one of the most successful images in the whole field of political symbolising. Its "incredible simplicity and directness led [it] to become the accepted symbol of the restrengthened anarchist movement after the revolt of 1968" particularly as in many, if not most, of the world's languages the word for anarchy begins with the letter A. [Peter Peterson, Op. Cit., p. 8]