About Schmidt: How a White Nationalist Seduced Anarchists Around the World (Chapter 5)
By Alexander Reid Ross and Joshua Stephens
According to AK Press collective member Charles Weigl, the information hit the publisher’s desk in two phases. “In May, a trusted comrade told us that there were rumors circulating that Michael Schmidt was some sort of neo-fascist or white nationalist. We obviously took it seriously, but also know how weird, and wrong, the political rumor mill can be,” he explained. When one of the authors of this series, Alexander Reid Ross, was researching his forthcoming book on entryism for AK, Against the Fascist Creep, the information — much of it hiding in plain sight — caught eyes once more. “[AK] got the ‘I’ve got some bad news’ email [from Ross] in June,” Weigl explained.
The revelation saddled AK with the weight of an extensive investigation, in addition to its normal workload. “Zach and I were the point people to evaluate new information as it came in, decide if and when we thought the ‘truth-threshold’ had been crossed, and then share what we knew with the full collective,” Weigl explained. A short way into the process, the other author of this series, Joshua Stephens, contacted AK, revealing over a year of looking into Schmidt. “We decided that the best way forward would be to put [both authors] in contact to combine [their] research,” Weigl said. “It felt like the research itself should be conducted independently of AK Press.”
Despite the fact that AK’s announcement in late August was little more than a public cutting of ties in light of information contained in a developing story — about which its staff knew nothing until June — the assumption persisted, and was actively circulated, that AK Press had commissioned the story. And their decision to leave substantiation to those who’d actively researched the story left many feeling as though a grenade had been negligently tossed into a crowded space. “All the options seemed bad, but in the end we picked one,” Weigl lamented. “I’m not sure it was the best decision. Of course, I might be saying the same thing if we’d decided to wait. I now realize how naive this was, but I had imagined that people would actually wait for all the evidence to be released before jumping into the fray.”
In the intervening weeks, anarchists around the world sounded off, calling it everything from a liberal slander to a “Stalinist show trial” (a bit of hyperbole with which anyone who lived through one might beg to differ). Demands for evidence to be “released” resounded across social media, as though an investigation was not ongoing, and the fairer thing to do was rush a process that would have enormous consequences.
Some of the reaction seemed justified by the tragic history of FBI bad-jacketing in leftist movements. However, much of it was baffling, if not disturbing in its own right. At every turn, as much outrage was directed at the series itself (from its degree of analytical detail, to the mere delivery method in serialization) as was voiced in response to the revelation of long-running white supremacist activity on the part of a widely-read anarchist voice. Some insisted that AK should have waited for a full report, while also declaring they should have come forward earlier — an alarming contradiction indicative of the level of felt shock, disbelief, and denial.
One instructive contradiction at the core of these demands is that less than half of the evidence in question was ever embargoed. From Schmidt’s preemptive defense (following AK’s public statement), his Stormfront profile, Black Battlefront page, and Ardent Vinlander profile had all been outed, along with the name of his editor, Brendan Seery, in case anyone felt like fact checking. Outside this series, there appears no indication anyone bothered.
A majority of the material that went into the story began with evidence that was publicly accessible. The Terre’Blanche piece trading in “white genocide” language concocted by white nationalists; the romantic overtures to fascism and national anarchism buried in his review of Maia Ramnath’s work; the pan-secessionist article. Fully none of it was ever hidden or embargoed.
On some level, the unwillingness to get hands dirty in research is understandable in retrospect, given not just the unsettling nature of the findings, but the extremely disturbing process of uncovering them — not to mention the incredibly volatile prospect of revealing them to a public not altogether ready or willing to accept them. On another level, it was not difficult to detect a kind of sympathy for Schmidt’s position among some of his closer defenders — a sense that, as scholar J Sakai writes in Confronting Fascism, “In the new globalized multicultural capitalism, in the new computer society, the provincial, sheltered white settler life of America is going to be as over as the white settler life of the South African ‘Afrikaners’ is.” (Kersplebeded) As we conducted our research into Schmidt’s profiles, and communicated with him via email and personal messages over the period of a month, the interplay of his numerous identities flickered in the gaslight of suggestion; the allusions to white supremacist themes, hide-and-seek, and the maneuvering he deployed within this private world seemed to bring out the various disguises and subterfuges that marked his public persona. With so many layers and contours, it’s not entirely surprising he was able to seduce so many for so long. He was measuring us up to find out where we stood. He seemed to believe it was a game, one he wanted us to play along with — a “catch me if you can,” coy bravado.
While on a public level, his articles clearly seemed to be attempts at shifting his base of anarchist followers to the right, involving all the same kind of interplays, he’s also enjoyed adequate clout in the anarchist movement to shut down any accusations as “sectarian smear campaigns.” Membership within his inner-circle functioned almost like a temptation. The more we spoke to people who contributed their narratives to this series, the more it came into view how he’d used his influential position in the South African media and the anarchist scene; trading favors, shutting certain people out, and cultivating a rather powerful persona.
Schmidt’s game appears to have been composed of unwritten rules and strictly enforced codes, through which he fashioned from anti-racist positions within platformism his own racist objectives and rationalizations. He warped democratic ideas into anti-democratic positions that explicitly excluded people of color on the basis of the false premises that “blacks are incapable of other than the basest service to the Revolution” by pretending he understood the ideology and history better than those around him.
Politico-Cultural Dynamics of Denial
That others went along with his false stories and methods suggests a larger subversion at work. When we talked with local long-time South African leftists, their reflections dialed in on a broader vulnerability across the international left. “Honestly, the ZACF is an irrelevance. Within the larger irrelevance of the South African left, I mean,” one told us, continuing, “Look at what is happening at the moment with the mass student protests, and look at the non-role of the ‘left’ in it — especially the white left… There’s a social disconnect between many left groups and the underlying tensions of South African society.”
The present movement in South Africa began with a prairie-fire of student actions contesting a hike in university fees. The protests swelled into a nation-wide phenomenon, with the state attempting to diffuse them by freezing the fee increase. It proved, however, too late; the protests continued to build, proliferating through social media under the #NationalShutDown hashtag, threatening the very political order of South Africa. While leftists have been involved in supporting and forwarding the movement, like most global popular movements, its spontaneous character took the established left by surprise.
The subtle, passive forfeit buried therein is hardly new. Through its own intellectual pursuits, its adherence to dogma focusing on “tightening up,” hardening the line, and disciplining its members, many groups on the international left repeat the same methods of forcing out or proudly peacocking their way into irrelevance for those they actually claim to serve, stagnating in stifling whiteness. Disproportionately impacted communities are reduced to the value of a token, both socially and politically.
Racial lines on the South African left are clearly drawn, according to Ntsika Gogwana, a young activist based in Eastern Cape currently participating in the #NationalShutDown movement in the University of the Western Cape under a lock-in/lock-out crackdown. “I don’t spend much time with white leftists — in SA, race has been constructed in such a way that it is synonymous with class,” he told us. “And the nature of whiteness preempts real class solidarity. But yes, racism is widespread among white leftists — even though it may not be conscious or expressed in crude, overt terms.”
When Schmidt was publicly exposed, the combination of defensiveness and ad hominem attacks that emerged in reaction seemed to reflect the same patriarchal and racially charged conditions that empowered him in the first place. As a chilling example, Gogwana was met with vitriol on Schmidt’s Facebook page for pointing out the problems of Schmidt’s open use of the terms “black racist” and “k*ffirskietpiekniek” (the paramilitary pro-Apartheid groups’ term for “k*affir shooting picnic”).
One of Schmidt’s friends intervened, inveighing against Gogwana:
Tellingly, Schmidt stood by, and said nothing — a tacit approval of this vicious harangue.
When we asked Gogwana if he had noticed warning signs of Schmidt’s racism before the incident, he responded with an emphatic “Yes!! He posted pictures of himself and his white friends playing with guns, statements about not being interested in the ‘Bantu’ narrative of the colonization of South Africa, and a lot of other racially problematic statements on his Facebook profile. But I had no idea how deeply held his racist views are/were and how organized he was.”
A Garden Neglected
Similar warning signs screamed from between the lines of the 2008 ZACF discussion document circulated by Schmidt, in which he declared blacks in South Africa incapable of living up to the “exacting standards of platformism.” Although it was a federation after its founding in 2003, the ZACF’s chapters were very small. One group in Soweto was composed largely of one man — a young black South African named Philip who went by the name of Karl Marx before joining the ZACF. He was unemployed, living in Motsoaledi, a poorer area of Soweto, and he was interested in cultivating urban gardens. His main project was a community garden in the dilapidated area behind Baragwanath Hospital, which he sought to transform into a social center.
Through this project, Phillip became dependent on ZACF, which used him as the “face of anarchism,” according to three long-time activists. Sooner or later, the ZACF decided that he had become an encumbrance to the image they sought to cultivate. After paying him to keep the garden up, the ZACF finally cut its ties with Phillip and the social center project.
Schmidt did not support the multiracial constitution of the ZACF, but attempted to work with Phillip. When Phillip began to spiral into personal crisis, Schmidt became angry, and used the incident to cast broad speculations about the general shortcomings of black comrades. The problem here was not simply an exhibition of what the ZACF did wrong, and Michael Schmidt’s role in using that incident as a springboard to claim that all black people in South Africa are unworthy of anarchist practice (unless their terms are set by whites).
“It’s almost a formula,” one independent activist told us. “White dominated organization recruits Black comrade, overstates the significance of whatever Black/township thing they’re involved in, and whatever organization is built is entirely dependent on the white folks’ funds.” While the formula described by this seasoned veteran of the South African political scene is specific, he reminded us that its implications are replicated around the world.
Why would a white supremacist overstate the significance of working with a person of color? The simple answer is that it affords the appearance of equality on the left, and the left enters a snug dream of anti-racism, even when its white-dominated projects exist only for the sake of assuaging consciences and exploiting opportunities to gain prestige. In spite of his attempts to avoid them, according to critics, these implications resonate with the metrics that drive much of Schmidt’s worldview — particularly his understanding of multi-racial labor struggles laid out in published works going back to Black Flame.
The problem with such a methodology for assessing the anti-racist character of given movements is that membership does not imply power, much less any role in determining organizational priorities. Nor does it inoculate these spaces from the deleterious effects of institutionalized power disparities. It’s insufficient to tag a struggle as anti-racist when its members of color have little to no role in determining objectives, and face problems of dependency and exploitation within the struggle itself.
In the case of Phillip and the ZACF, when white members pulled the plug, the garden project and its coordinator became symbols for Schmidt of the failure of black anarchists to organize and develop revolutionary projects autonomous from white direction. By advocating in favor of an “all white” anarchist movement rather than treating people of color as equal contributors to the revolutionary cause and addressing and attempting to solve the crisis as systemic, Schmidt sought to institutionalize this otherwise implicit vulnerability for people disproportionately impacted by racism as an organizational centerpiece. It was not merely “politically incorrect” as Schmidt described it following the first installment of this series; it was a strategy with effects on real people’s lives and bodies.
One inroad for Schmidt was his reputation. Many people respected Schmidt for his work as a journalist, and were able to shake off his racist outbursts thinking that they simply manifested symptoms of post-traumatic stress. He talked openly about his experiences in Rwanda, Darfur, and Lebanon, and more than one local activist in South Africa came to us with the belief that Schmidt had actually seen the killing fields during the Rwandan genocide. In the words of one South African activist, “He always wants to come across as a tough guy… The thing is, if a journalist says, ‘I was in Rwanda,’ everyone assumes it was during the genocide.”
When we asked Schmidt’s former editor, Brendan Seery, he was dumbfounded at the insinuation. “My newspaper, the Sunday Tribune, never sent anyone to Rwanda in 1994. There was too much going on in South Africa. And, as far as I know, Schmidt was either still in college or was a junior reporter at that stage.” Later, when he was news editor of The Sunday Independent, he did send a reporter and a photographer to Rwanda, “but that was after the genocide,” Seery clarified. “I am aware that [in 2004], Schmidt went there on what I characterize as ‘genocide tourism.’”
Yet Schmidt’s heroic declarations of his journalistic ventures not only in Rwanda, but Lebanon and Darfur, and the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he incurred from it, suggest an extensive experience in some of the most horrifying regions of the world. Seery explained, “As far as Rwanda was concerned, he only went there as a tourist. In the case of Darfur and Lebanon, it was the next best thing: he went with the charitable organization Gift of the Givers.” Many other journalists have accompanied Gift of the Givers into war-torn areas (only after peace has returned). “[T]o my knowledge, none has claimed to have come down with PTSD as a result.”
Schmidt’s experience in Lebanon was, in the milieu of conflict journalism, relatively light. In a self-glorifying Anarkismo article titled “Eyewitness in Lebanon: In the Land of the Blind,” published September 2, 2006, Schmidt describes his experience traveling apparently relatively quickly through the country. The article largely focuses on his own experiences and opinions, providing little in the way of news, and much in the way of analysis that stems from his understanding of history, rather than actual events he witnessed. Schmidt somewhat coldly characterizes a dead girl he sees in the morgue as a “statistic,” including a picture of the back of her head with the article. He describes a funeral procession as a “very nerve wracking experience,” centralizing his own feelings.
He ends the article, which is replete with sectarian attacks against ideological opponents, with a call for “pragmatic solidarity and a functional network of councillist [sic], left communist and anarchist communist organizations in the region” as the only “real anarchist communist option for Lebanon.” In short, he uses the fact that he was in Lebanon for a relatively brief period of time to bring greater clout to his ideological argument for the proper political destiny of a land with which he has had only a passing relationship.
In one of a number of unfavorable comments, a Lebanese journalist named Simon Assaf called Schmidt’s piece “a bit of war tourism,” and went on to state in another comment regarding Schmidt’s usage of the term “choirboys” to describe Hezbollah:
Sorry Michael, but you should refrain form [sic] flippant comments about one million refugees… Do [you] think that the Lebanese are just puppets on the big man’s fingers? You need to read a little about our history, and the part played by mass movements, maybe then you will be less inclined to commit such basic errors. A little more humility is in order… don’t you think?
In a very similar article published again in Anarkismo the next year, Schmidt writes about Darfur with the authority of “spending time in el-Fasher and Nyala, the capitals of North and South Darfur respectively, last month.” In the first part of the article, Schmidt reports on basic facts of International Monetary Fund involvement and the Sudanese oil industry. He then provides some very basic “thoughts on the situation,” which culminate in a final insistence that peacekeepers not be sent to the region. Schmidt states simply that the “USA alleges genocide,” while the National Congress Party denies “any genocidal campaign.” For someone so sensitive toward the perceived genocide against whites in South Africa, his apparent skepticism toward genocide in Darfur and insistence on non-intervention seem awkwardly at odds.
From Rwanda to Lebanon to Darfur, Schmidt’s reporting did not meet the expectations of those who knew him, and were chastised by other journalists and editors as “war tourism” and “genocide tourism.” “What I believe,” remarked Seery, “is that he is a fantasist — and a wannabe trying to claim some illustrious journalism career for himself which never existed. That is an insult to those of us who did the hard yards and risked our lives.”
Tactics of Dissimulation
In the end, aside from his pattern of baiting, suggestion, allusion, and hide-and-seek, Schmidt walked a tightrope of ideological insinuation, co-optation, and denial common among that part of the white supremacist movement that justifies neo-fascism under the rubric of “left nationalism” and “national anarchism.” His most obvious tactic, made clear by the correlation of fuming Stormfront posts sanitized into public tracts, is a classic method of denial and co-optation.
A clear example of this strategy appears in Schmidt’s understanding of nationalism and anarchism in terms of syndicalist thought. “I don’t think that there is any real correlation between anarchist syndicalism and national syndicalism,” Schmidt told us in our interview — a strange denial given that a number of origin voices within national syndicalism, including Mussolini, Valois, and De Ambris, either had been or were supporters of anarchism. However, Schmidt did admit, in a rather glaring contradiction of his own stated views, “I do feel that there is the possibility of purist syndicalism in the post-revolutionary period approximate [to] national syndicalism[.]” In other words, as in the case of the “proper Boerestaat,” a de facto white nationalist state in Africa could function on the basis of syndicalism — i.e., there is not only a correlation, but a positive correlation between national and anarchist syndicalism.
In his article on Terre’blanche, Schmidt performs a similar operation of disassociation from fascism and co-optation of its principles. By distinguishing Terre’Blanche’s group, the fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), from neo-Nazism, he creates the conditions for a more sympathetic reading of the brutality and violence of pro-apartheid militants. Through that reading, he provides an ultranationalist narrative of his own Afrikaner identity, thus co-opting the demand of the AWB for a separate white state, while watering it down in the form of what he calls a “proper Boerestaat.”
The tactic of disassociation and co-optation appeared again in 2012, after Schmidt was called out for his Stormfront profile. He published a prolix article distancing himself from national anarchism, even while denying the latter’s relationship with fascism, thus redeeming its character and providing a safe measure of separation for himself. In his article, “The Two Faces of Global Separatism,” Schmidt goes on to co-opt the main positions of national anarchism through a pan-secessionist overview.
Finally, in his unpublished article, “Neither Fish nor Fowl,” Schmidt moves even further in his pattern of denial and co-optation. He begins by casting accusations of fascism against his political enemies on the left, which are grossly inaccurate and politically irresponsible, and his ensuing attempt to cite Julius Evola as a critic of fascism once again repeats the pattern of disconnecting the ideological content of fascism from its name in order to develop an analysis consistent with “alternatives” like national syndicalism and national anarchism while undermining that same leftist “ideological unity” which he claimed so ardently to support.
These tactics are part of a larger strategy of manipulation and distortion well-known to some of those who appeared on various Facebook threads to defend Schmidt. One of his most vocal supporters, for example, is an open member of New Resistance, the rebranded American Front neo-fascist group that today describes itself as “left nationalist.” Even while falsely denouncing “black racism” as rooted in a Maoist cultural genocide of whites, Schmidt’s own pan-secessionist white nationalism retraced the figure of “left nationalism” first sketched out by Jean-Francois Thiriart’s “fascist-Maoism,” colored in by the “fourth political theory,” and outlined by Schmidt’s most ardent neo-fascist supporters.
On the Question of Infiltration
Within hours of the first article in this series, which revealed Schmidt’s call for apartheid in the anarchist movement, numerous activists began rationalizing Michael Schmidt’s racist ZACF memo as everything from a bland and colorblind analysis, “no different than Emma Goldman’s position on French Canadians,” to an inexplicable spin on it as an argument against the very activist paternalism it laid bare. Barbed requests emerged for corroborating documents that had been linked right in the article, as did unqualified conjecture about the authors’ ideological bias — accusations echoing Schmidt’s own dismissive language of “identity politics.”
Schmidt’s own response came via Facebook, on October 13th:
In reality, the investigation had been underway since early 2014, more than a year before Schmidt’s former publisher had any inkling of it. What AK did do was exactly what any reasonable person would’ve expected of them: perform due diligence, facilitate an exchange of information, and send out a public alert as soon as they felt the evidence unequivocal.
With similar bluster, the next day, Schmidt posted a telling comment on his earlier Facebook response:
As is elementary to anyone who has read a piece of reporting in their lifetime, selected pieces of the memo were quoted — a fact one would venture is not news to Schmidt, whose own self-narrative is bound up with years of near-mythical journalistic output. Inasmuch as one author of this piece converted Schmidt’s memo to PDF, personally uploaded it to a public PDF-sharing site, and created the link to it in the body of the story, the article was rather demonstrably not “based on selective extracts.” Again, the zealous demands for the empirical shouted from the proverbial rooftops failed to translate into actual initiative. Even for Schmidt, himself.
When the second and third installments of this series pointed to increasingly damning evidence that Schmidt not only enjoyed a secret life as a white supremacist, but even organized and advocated for white nationalism, the questions gradually turned from the authors to whether Schmidt, himself, was a white nationalist infiltrator or just an unpredictable maverick — an adventurist with racist ideas who seeks to transform anarchism from the inside?
The definition of infiltration is “to enter or become established in gradually or unobtrusively usually for subversive purposes.” Given the options of Schmidt either simply acting out his desires on Stormfront and through Black Battlefront or actively promoting the ideals of nationalism within the anarchist milieu through subtle intrigue and subversion, it seems clear that Schmidt’s case contains a mixture of both. However, that mixture itself remains quite opaque.
The creation of Black Battlefront alone indicates that, unhappy with the failure of his attempts to create a racial division in the ZACF, Schmidt decided to form his own group, but he did not leave ZACF at the same time. Instead, he appears to have worked within the ZACF to mold it into a “white ‘national’ organization,” which had been his stated intention. While there seems to have been an evolution in Schmidt’s ideology toward pan-secessionism after leaving the ZACF in 2009, his advocacy for a “white ‘national’ organization” had been present in the movement since the early 2000s, if not before.
Given the openness of his political views on white nationalism and the foundation of what he calls a “proper Boerestaat,” however, it would seem as though infiltration would miss the mark. At the same time, when one digs more deeply into the aspects of Black Battlefront, itself, the group cannot be taken at face value as a forthright attempt at building an anti-racist whites-only organization. It also cannot be seen as a kind of anarchist strategy of “social insertion,” and Schmidt denied such a point outright in our interview. Given the extreme nature of Schmidt’s racist screeds on the same Stormfront account that he used to advertise for Black Battlefront, the rhetoric of “anti-racism” explicitly to win over “the court of international opinion” must be read as critically as Schmidt’s open promise of a “proper Boerestaat” with “equal rights for all.”
On Black Battlefront, he called for the territorial reconquest of the Old Cape, and on Facebook as Ardent Vinlander, he posted on the page of the separatist Cape Party, declaring Black Battlefront’s support for Cape secession.
This first commenter immediately seems to have picked up on the fact that Vinlander was not who she seemed to be. The second commentator chimed in with a racist tone, demanding “freedom from communist Azania.”
Matched with his attempts to use the Vinlander profile to encourage documentarians to promote national anarchism in their documentary about anarchism, the open courting of the Cape Party marks a pivotal moment of attempted entryism. In the former case, Schmidt attempted to sway anarchists toward national anarchism by using a false name; in the latter case, he attempted to generate mutual support between his own national anarchist group and a secessionist political party. In the aforementioned Facebook post, he also admits that Black Battlefront was an actual group with membership and meetings, not a top-secret research tool — a point buttressed by the fact that his own Facebook friends showed up on Black Battlefront’s roster of members.
On its blog, Black Battlefront provided a kind of bridge between overt racism and more subtle insinuations and innuendos in public statements and articles. “[It’s] a disconcerting example of left-right crossover with race — in the guise of ‘culture’ — as the central axis,” historian Peter Staudenmaier explained, when presented with material Schmidt produced under his various pseudonyms. “And it is noteworthy that Schmidt considers this approach anti-racist.” Whether or not we can believe Schmidt’s claims of anti-racism aren’t merely preemptive posturing for public consumption is another question.
Where the initial public statement from AK Press characterized Schmidt as a white nationalist infiltrator in anarchist movements, it may have figured as an overly-concise shorthand in a moment where time felt of the essence, or that it was the effect of a more limited, circumscribed reading of the evidence to which they had access. Or, in a perhaps more literary reading they opted for an accurate, Merriam-Webster application of the term “infiltrator” where a more precise, lexiconic understanding remains elusive. The actuality, in the opinion of these researchers, is quite messy, and in truth, that messiness is far more deeply instructive than any clear, either/or account of Schmidt’s history.
For Schmidt to have functioned as an infiltrator in the simplistic sense would imply some discernible arrival at a given, static political identity, the politics of which he would then have carried into anarchist milieus. It is difficult to read the extensive documentation of his various identities, and locate such definitive arrival. The erratic jockeying and sometimes-violent swings Schmidt displayed in the material we reviewed, as well as the interviews we conducted with him, indicate general mental health crises. However, one can locate a breaking point after the launch of Black Flame, the death of Terre’Blanche, his vote for the FF+, and abandonment of the ZACF to focus on Black Battlefront. While he had advocated for racist platforms before then, from the Terre’Blanche article on, he would become much more public and much less self-aware with his ultranationalist rhetoric. Meanwhile, his sock-puppet accounts would become more brash, as his slide to pan-secessionism grew more obvious.
According to Mathieu Desan, a political sociologist at the University of Michigan studying French socialists who moved to fascism in the 1930’s, Schmidt’s trajectory isn’t terribly unique. “It’s not so much a conversion. That’s a specific, and highly loaded term, and I don’t use it,” he explained to us. “The moment when these people flipped from left to right, wasn’t ever a single moment. It was more like a series of steps.”
For Desan, Schmidt’s story recalls that of Jacques Doriot, a major figure within the French Communist Party in the early 1930’s. “The French Communist Party of this time was much like contemporary anarchist circles, in that it was somewhat self-enclosed milieu, had its own culture, its own language, its own standards of status,” Desan explained. Doriot was a metalworker by trade, owing his entire political identity and career to the very party that wound up disowning him for advocating an unorthodox strategy not unlike the Popular Front, which would be adopted the very next year by the Comintern.
His ensuing move away from the left was a direct result of this exclusion. As if channeling Schmidt’s interview with us, in which he staked out good and bad anarchists, Desan explained that “being in a milieu where political arguments take an absolute form, where you’re either right or completely delegitimized, that kind of milieu lends itself to pretty radical reversals of political allegiances.” For Doriot, this meant going on to create the most important fascist party in France, but not immediately. “He tried to create a sort of alternative left wing, but he was consistently labeled a fascist, if only because he was a kind of populist figure. And very quickly, he ended up embracing that label.”
Schmidt had sought to establish an “authentic” anarchism sufficiently intelligible as to compete with the articulation(s) already taking root and developing among anarchists in grassroots movements. In particular, Schmidt saw his version of anarchism as a classical challenge to an “individualist” and “insurrectionary” movement stemming from social justice organizing inclusive of class on the same level as feminism, ecology, sexual diversity, and other goals. His point, whatever one thinks of its implications, was not without merit.
Anarchism as a movement was becoming, from the 1990s forward, inextricably bound up with a self-reflection around issues of oppression that intersected with the economic grievances at the core of the alter-globalization movement. Largely due to the fierce insistence of people disproportionately impacted, organizing ventures gave greater and greater space and agency to struggles led by people of color. The prison industrial complex. Police brutality. Immigration. While constructions and legacies of race, gender, and sexuality vary across geographies, that anarchism’s development at the turn of the last century was profoundly shaped by them is undeniable.
On the other hand, the politics on which Schmidt staked his very identity (or at least a profile of it), and to the articulation of which he owed his stature and visibility within the international anarchist milieu, did not enjoy sufficient traction, to his mind. In our interview, Schmidt attacked Occupy Wall Street as the latest manifestation of this alternative trend of anarchism. To Schmidt, Occupy manifested “the exact same middle-class complaint against a narrow speculative sector of capitalism that was so widely voiced in Germany in the 1920s and which gave so much fuel to the Nazi fire. Ironies upon ironies.” Ironies indeed.
Far from proposing some generative reconciliation of class struggle with racial, sexual, or colonial oppression — something some class-oriented anarchists have been taking up for years, as is now well underway within low-wage worker organizing in the US, now joining with the Black Lives Matter movement — Schmidt sought to forward white nationalism using an approximation of anarchist syndicalism as leverage to reopen the colonial legacy of the Afrikaner volkstaat.
“All of these people who move from left to right — they’re people who lose,” Desan explained to us. “[T]hey lose out in a fight within their circles about the definition of what the correct line or strategy or what have you should be. But there’s also something about those circles, where to lose out is consequential. It’s a delegitimizing, marginalizing experience.”
Schmidt was brought down by his own devices; forced into the closet by his own repressive, doctrinaire behavior; left dropping hints and clues in a desperate attempt to get free. We may never fully know what really brought him from the military to anarchism, or for how long he held his white supremacist views. We also may never fully understand the extent to which Schmidt and national anarchism leader Troy Southgate exchanged notes on people, ideas, and organizations. Perhaps it’s too easy to say that Michael Schmidt was or was not an infiltrator. Either way, we would have to separate him from his context, taking part in another game of denial, ignoring that he may be just a very sad, messy product of a self-involved pattern in which many people still play a role. In all the bizarre, duplicitous games he manufactured, the only narrative that holds everything together is of a person in the midst of a very strange, very experimental process of reinvention and revision requiring a web of lies and deceit unprecedented in recent memory.
It offers less in the way of clean, convenient conclusions from which we can stake some safe distance; more a rather pregnant point of pause for collective self-reflection.
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.