About Schmidt: How a White Nationalist Seduced Anarchists Around the World (Chapter 1)

by Alexander Reid Ross and Joshua Stephens

[This article is the first in a multi-part series. Subsequent articles will follow a publication timeline, across the next two weeks. Chapter 2 will appear October 14th. The authors encourage readers to absorb each piece, with its corresponding documentation, in full]

The Basest Service to the Revolution

On a sunny day in July 2008, six months before the publication of Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Counter Power, Vol. 1), co-author, Michael Schmidt, met with fellow members of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) at his cozy bungalow in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was a gorgeous day, so the four collective mates sat down comfortably on Schmidt’s wooden furniture in his spacious garden, near a lemon tree while his White Swiss Shepherd puppies, Loki and Freya, came out to sniff their guests.

There was a lot going on in Schmidt’s life. He was in the midst of working on Black Flame alongside academic Lucien van der Walt — a work that, since publication in early 2009, has sold roughly 4,000 copies. According to Charles Weigl, a collective member at the book’s publisher, AK Press, “the average nonfiction book in the US sells less than 250 copies a year, and 3,000 over its lifetime.” Sales-wise, Black Flame stood shoulder to shoulder with recent editions of works from some of anarchism’s most recognized names, and Weigl told us that Black Flame was “still selling steadily,” until late this past September.

However, as internal secretary of the ZACF, Schmidt had taken time out of his busy schedule to host a meeting in a different context. Part of the business of the meeting was a “confidential discussion document” circulated by Schmidt titled “Politico-Cultural Dynamics of the South African Anarchist Movement” (which will be referred to as “Politico-Cultural Dynamics” from this point on). One person at the meeting, who asked not to be named for this piece, recalled, “Michael asked about thoughts on the document. Everyone was awkwardly quiet and pretended they hadn’t read it.”

The text at the center of discussion that July day was his take on why anarchist organizing had foundered in post-apartheid South Africa. “Blacks,” he wrote, are “incapable of other than the basest service to the Revolution.” Schmidt explained that while the best anarchist militants “have almost without exception been proven to be whites,” black anarchists, “while good comrades, have not been up to the exacting standards” required of them. He goes on to state that “in [South Africa], where race is often more important than class as a determining factor in consciousness, we find that white anarchist militants are the de-facto leading echelon, while most black anarchist militants merely follow.”

Due to “Bantu national education” and economic disparities facing black people in South Africa, Schmidt claims, “logical process, self-discipline and autonomous strategic thinking has been strangled at birth.” He goes on to list an alphabet soup of different international groups that he claims gain strength from cultural homogeneity, and presents the ZACF as “a white politico-cultural anarchist movement” that cannot “merge” with “the black politico-cultural anarchist movement… at this stage of history.”

Schmidt states that white culture is not culturally identical by calling on his relationship with Black Flame co-author, van der Walt: “For example, Lucien considers himself a ‘European settler,’ despite his Afrikaner heritage, whereas I consider myself an ‘Afrikaner’ or ‘white African’ despite my Anglophone heritage.”

“So, are [South African (SA)] black anarchists unequal to the task [of revolutionary organizing]?” Schmidt asks, well into the document. “After 16 years of activism, I’m forced to say no — as long as the task is established for them under the influence of SA white anarchists.” In other words, black South Africans are equal to the task, but only if the terms of struggle are defined by South African white anarchists. The platform, in this case established by Schmidt and a cohort of white colleagues, becomes a compass to lead allegedly feeble-minded Africans toward their own liberation.

Black Flame, White Blindspot

Such a compass was in the works, as Schmidt and van der Walt worked on their book through the coming months. At five hundred pages, Black Flame is widely considered the first major (non-anthology) work in some time — perhaps ever — to provide a global historical account of anarchist movements. Many viewed the work as a kind of “Anarchist Bible,” or what Immanuel Ness, a professor at City University of New York and author of New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism (PM Press, 2014), had described as “perhaps the most important contribution [to] the global history of working class movements from an anarchist perspective.”

While its proletarian message rang true to many, Black Flame did not come without its controversy. The construction of anarchism one finds in its pages is keenly specific, and strikes a deliberate contrast with contemporaneous anarchist literature seeking to grapple with the gritty realities of anarchist practices increasingly deployed by on-the-ground struggles. Alongside the influence of prison-abolition movements, post-structural theory, and leftist solidarity for Indigenous uprisings like the Zapatistas in Mexico, a variety of shifts reaching back some two-decades had effectively put the anarchist tradition’s classical preoccupations with capitalism and the State on equal footing (and in conversation) with struggles around patriarchal and racial domination, Indigenous and gender self-determination, colonialism, and disability. In contradistinction, the construction of anarchism put forth by Black Flame reasserts a temptingly simple primacy of class struggle and workers’ movements with the not inconsiderable force of “big A Anarchism.”

Black Flame maintains historical roots in what its authors deem the “broad anarchist tradition,” drawing from what is known as platformism. Andy Cornell, formerly the Anarchist Studies postdoctoral fellow at Haverford College and author of Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Mid-20th Century (forthcoming, University of California Press), argues the tendency emerged in the first decade of the Russian Revolution, reckoning with the direction of the left in the hands of the Bolsheviks. “[Platformists] felt the Russian anarchist movement, and the international movement more generally, was theoretically weak and had insufficient organization to push the revolution in an anarchist direction,” Cornell explained. “So they argued for an anarchism that was more clearly committed to class struggle, and that accepted formal organizations. [Basically,] figure out an organizational structure, develop a strategy, [and] stick to it.”

In Schmidt’s view, the politics of race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of what he calls “identitarianism” are implicit within revolutionary class struggle, so centering them rather than class leads to compromises and half-measures. Perforce, reading Black Flame, one is hard-pressed not to discern this contempt for “identity politics,” and in its indictments, the voices cited are conspicuously white.

Noel Ignatiev, the white firebrand behind the journal Race Traitor, figures as often and substantively in Black Flame as W. E. B. du Bois. Curiously, Schmidt and van der Walt misidentify Ignatiev as a “former-Maoist.” In fact, Ignatiev’s big claim to fame came in 1967, with an article critical of the Maoist tendency within Progressive Labor, published along with Theodore W. Allen’s famous essay, “The White Blindspot,” recalling du Bois’s brilliant book, Black Reconstruction (published in 1935).

A Sordid History

Like most white men until conscription was abolished in 1993, Schmidt was drafted into the South African military, which was putting down black unrest during the end of apartheid. This, he claims, radicalized him, and he visited Rwanda as a journalist just after the genocide of 1994, growing increasingly politicized. Professionally, he appears to have been respected more for his administrative capabilities than his journalism. He founded the Professional Journalists’ Association of South Africa (ProJourn) and The Ulu Club for Southern African Conflict Journalists, and has a personal network of associates that spans an influential set of counter-culture celebrities and highly-regarded media figures.

In conversations with some who’ve known him personally, Schmidt is described as warm and sensitive — a beguiling and experienced man, with a gloominess carried from his time in Rwanda, where as a journalist, he witnessed horrors such as “piles of dead bodies” stacked in warehouses. He is open about his PTSD. From other, less-sympathetic accounts, he figures as an intellectual gatekeeper prone to contrarianism and rowdy outbursts during bouts of drinking. He is known to have come to blows with at least one friend during heated arguments fueled by alcohol.

“Politico-Cultural Dynamics,” however, offers a more intimate portrait of Schmidt’s organizing career. During the 2003 drafting of the constitution for the previous incarnation of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation, Schmidt declares that he proposed a strategy based on the Brazilian group Federação Anarquista Gaúcha, which maintained a “‘specific’ core, with outlying nodes of social insertion.” With this structure in mind, Schmidt called for distinguishing racially distinct collectives for whites and for “less ideologically convinced black cadre.”

He continues, “My attempt during the drafting of the ZACF Constitution to have this divide explicitly recognized as (white) rearward collectives and (black) frontline collectives was defeated as it was felt this would unduly emphasize the race/class divide in the Federation.”

The defeat of Schmidt’s attempt to create ideologically and structurally separate collectives for white and black cadres is important, inasmuch as it shows that Schmidt’s racialized understanding of platformism was and is not widely shared. While the relative silence that followed the defeat of his proposal raises critical questions, it appears that Schmidt’s explicit use of “the platform” as an intellectual power structure best understood and controlled by whites was of his own making.

This was a major change that broke down the collaborative aspect of the federation — in particular, doing away with action groups in places like the 99%-black township of Umlazi. Within two years of his initial, rejected frontline/rear guard proposal, the Federation had been cut in half; two years after that, in 2007, it was dissolved completely. According to Schmidt, this change took place, due to its black members’ “ill-discipline, inactivity or a lack of theoretical understanding.”

However, the Federation was re-founded as the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front with a new structure. Schmidt explains the implications: “[T]he organization lost its last black members in **Swaziland**, reducing it from a biracial ‘international’ organization to a white ‘national’ organization.” The ZACF had gone from a six-branch, multiracial anarchist Federation that was too broad to have a membership roster, but was engaged in activities throughout South Africa and in Swaziland, to an all-white group with only six members dedicated specifically to the development of ideology and propaganda.

According to Schmidt’s “Politico-Cultural Dynamics,” he had been there every step of the way — first advocating unsuccessfully for a racial divide in the Federation in 2003, then arguing for a political hardening into three collectives in 2005, then finally re-founding the group as a “white ‘national’ organization” in 2007, with some six members and three “supporters.” Considering what Schmidt named as his own cultural understandings of his Afrikaner identity, it is clear that he puts “national” in quotations to connote white South Africans who share a common “culture,” which he understands as a standard for organizational specificity and unity.

“[T]he underlying ideology at work here, [is] a more or less direct inheritance of the European New Right. That is why the ‘culture’ / ‘race’ nexus seems so important to him,” says Peter Staudenmaier, an historian at Marquette University and co-author (with Janet Biehl) of Eco-Fascism: Lessons from the German Experience, reflecting on Schmidt’s internal document. “There is a lengthy tradition, especially after 1945, of shifting ‘race’ talk to ‘culture’ talk without really changing the content, and it’s that same conceptual fuzziness that the far right plays on (the radical left hasn’t done much to clarify the fuzziness either). In that sense, this story is a good example of anarchists’ failure to work through the complexities of race not only at a political level, but at an intellectual level.”

Schmidt’s conclusion of “Politico-Cultural Dynamics” is summed up in one telling passage: “[P]erhaps we should not be too quick to seek partially-qualified black members, or be ashamed of our whiteness — for we after all reject both the Maoist theory of ‘white skin privilege’, and the radical counter-theory of ‘race-traitorship. Instead we should proudly recognize that we are (currently, and presumably temporarily) a white anarchist movement.”

Thus, Schmidt encourages the “white ‘national’ organization” to be proud of itself as forming the “white anarchist movement” after purging black militants, who he describes as ill-disciplined, lagging, and incapable of meeting “the exacting standards of platformism.” It was those “exacting standards of platformism that Schmidt would attempt to explain with Lucien van der Walt in Black Flame, gaining greater influence throughout the world through their widely read book. Through Schmidt’s attempts to reconstruct the platform, it would seem as though he saw himself as leading the whites in laying out the “task” of revolution for the “ideologically less convinced” people of color whose “inactivity” had brought about the failure of the anarchist movement in South Africa. However, across more than a hundred pieces of evidence, we located far more sinister ideas at work in Schmidt’s own handiwork whittling the ZACF from a multi-collective federation down to an all-white intellectual “front,” and blaming it on people of color.

Errata: The authors would like to note that Ignatiev does in fact seem to have been briefly a member of a tendency close to Maoist analysis. This, however, does not change the fact that “white privilege” analysis developed from WEB du Bois on, and in a critical relation to Maoism. It is not “Maoist,” as such.

Subsequent Chapters: Two, Three, and Four

Alexander Reid Ross is a moderator of the Earth First! Newswire, the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab and author of the forthcoming book Against the Fascist Creep (AK Press)

Joshua Stephens is a former collective member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and a writer whose work has appeared with The Atlantic, Gawker, AlterNet, Truthout, NOW Lebanon, and The Outpost.