The History of the Black Flag - Black Flag

Black Flag article on the history of anarchists using the black flag.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 28, 2020

"The People's Flag is Deepest Black"

Anarchism has always stood for a broad, and at times vague, political platform. The reasoning is sound; blueprints create dogma and stifle the creative spirit of revolt. Along the same lines and resulting in the same problems, anarchists have rejected the 'disciplined' leadership found in many other political groupings on the Left. Again, the reasoning is sound; leadership based on authority is inherently hierarchical. It seems to follow that since anarchists have shied away from anything static, they would also shy away from the use of symbols and icons. While this may explain why the origins of anarchist symbols are elusive, the fact is anarchists have used symbolism widely in their revolt against the State and Capital. 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. Red-and-black, 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.

Ironically, one of the original anarchist symbols was the red flag. But anarchism originated from the wider socialist and labour movements and common roots would imply a common imagery. 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. Recent times have seen the emergence of the green-and-black flag of eco-anarchism and other popular symbols include the IWW inspired "wild-cat', the black rose and the ironic 'little black bomb'. This article, based on Jason Wehling's 1995 essay Anarchism and the History of the Black Flag, presents a short history of the most famous symbol - the black flag.

There are ample accounts of the use of black flags by anarchists. The most famous being Nestor Makhno's partisans during the Russian Revolution. Under the black banner, his army kept a large portion of the Ukraine free from concentrated power for a good couple of years. On the flag was embroidered "Liberty or Death" and "The Land to the Peasant, The Factories to the Workers.”1 Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary, used a black flag adorned with a skull & crossbones and the Virgin, as well as the slogan "Land & Liberty". In 1925, Japanese anarchists formed the Black Youth League and, in 1945, when the anarchist federation reformed, their journal was named Kurohata (Black flag)2 .

More recently, Parisian students carried black (and red) flags during the General Strike of 1868 as did the American Students for a Democratic Society national convention of the same year. Today, if you go to any sizeable demonstration you will usually see the black flag raised by the anarchists present.

The earliest account of the black flag involved Louise Michel and the Paris Commune of 1871. Michel flew the black flag on March 9 1883, during a 500-strong demonstration of the unemployed in Paris3 . The following year Paul Avrich reports that on November 27 the black flag was displayed in Chicago at an Anarchist demonstration. 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"4 . On a more dreary note, February 13 1921 saw Peter Kropotkin's funeral in Moscow. The funeral march stretching for miles, carried black banners proclaiming "Where there is authority there is no freedom."5 Black flags had first appeared in Russia during the founding of the Cherroe Zhania ('black banner') movement in 1905, yet two weeks after Kropotkin's funeral, the Kronstadt rebellion broke out and anarchism was erased from Soviet Russia for good.

Clearly this is the period when black flags were first adopted by anarchists, but their use of the red flag did not instantly die out. We find Kropotkin writing in Words of a Rebel, between 1880 and 1882, of "anarchist groups... rais[ing] the red flag of revolution." 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."6 The drift away from the red flag towards the black must be placed in historical context. During the late 1870s and early 1880s the socialist movement was changing. Marxist social democracy was the dominant socialist trend, with libertarian socialism falling into decline in many areas. The red flag became associated with the authoritarian, statist and increasingly reformist face of the socialist movement. In order to distinguish themselves from other socialists, the adoption of the black flag by anarchists made perfect sense.

Figuring out when the connection was made is easier than finding out why black was chosen. The Chicago Alarm explained that the black flag is "the fearful symbol of hunger, misery and death"7 . Bookchin asserts that the black flag is the “symbol of the workers misery and as an expression of their anger and bitterness."8
In France, he records,

"[Uri 1831, the silk-weaving artisans... rose in armed conflict to gain a better tariff, 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."9

Kropotkin states that its use continued in the French labour movement after this uprising, when the Paris Workers "'raised in June [1848] their black flag of 'Bread or Labour' ".10 The use of the black flag by anarchists, therefore, is an expression of their roots and activity in the international labour movement.

So just as anarchists base their ideas on actual working class practice, they also adopted symbols emerging from this practice. For example, Proudhon 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 to be an expression of working class self-activity.11 Indeed, according to K Steven Vincent, there was "close similarity between the associational ideal of Proudhon ... and the program of the Lyon Mutualists" and 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."12 Anarchists' politics aim to be the expression of tendencies within society and working class struggle and the use of traditional workers' symbols would be a natural expression of this ideal.

But there are other possibilities. Black is a very powerful colour, or anti-colour. The 1880s were a time of extreme anarchist activity. The Black International saw the introduction of "propaganda of deed" as an anarchist platform. So the colour black became also a symbol of the nihilism of the period, a nihilism exacerbated by the mass slaughter of Communards by the French ruling class after the fall of the Paris Commune of 1871. 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)."13 Given that many of the 25,000 dead Communards were anarchists, their use of the black flag after this event would make sense.

There may also be philosophical reason for the use of the colour black - it being commonly recognised as a sign of 'negation'. As such, the black flag fits nicely with Bakunin's ideas on progress. Bakunin accepted Hegel's dialectical method but always stressed that the negative was the driving force within it. 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". What better symbol for the anarchist movement than one which is the negation of all other flags, signifying movement to a higher form of social organisation?

There is also a connection between the black flag and pirates (there is an unconfirmed report that Louise Michel, while leading the women's battalion during the Paris Commune, may have flown the skull and crossbones). Pirates were seen as rebels, free spirits, and often ruthless killers. Many had an elected Captain of the ship subject to “instant recall” and in some cases the captain wasn't even male. Life on board a pirate ship was certainly more democratic than on board a navy or merchant ship. For pirates, the black flag's message to their victims was "surrender or die!" Pirates owed allegiance to no code of law except whatever makeshift rules they improvised amongst themselves. Certainly pirates were not consciously anarchist but what is important is how they were seen. Their symbol was the embodiment of rebellion and the spirit of lawlessness. 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. One could quickly get a hold of a piece of red or black cloth in a riot but 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.

To sum up, we quote Howard Ehrlich from his book Reinventing Anarchy:

"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.”14

  • 1 Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 475.
  • 2 Op. Cit., p. 525-6.
  • 3 George Woodcock, Anarchism, pp. 251.
  • 4 Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy pp. 144-145
  • 5 Paul Avrich, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, p. 26.
  • 6Words of a Rebel, p.75, p. 225.
  • 7 Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy.
  • 8Op. Cit., p. 57.
  • 9 The Third Revolution, Vol 2, p. 157.
  • 10Act for Yourself, p. 100.
  • 11No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 59-60.
  • 12Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism, p.164.
  • 13 Chico, ‘Letters', Freedom, vol. 48, No.12, p.10.
  • 14 Reinventing Anarchy, pp. 31-2.