In the following selections, a range of authors and artists from across a century and a half reflect on the meaning of the black flag, the anarchist standard of rebellion and negation.
Reporter: “There are some people here, roaming about… well, not exactly roaming, they seem organized. I don’t know who they are, they’re all dressed in black, they have black hoods on, and black flags… a flag with nothing on it.”
Anchor: “A flag with nothing on it?”
Reporter: “That’s right, it’s totally black.”
-Television coverage of the protests against the 1999 summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle
Louise Michel: In Mourning for Our Dead and Our Illusions
In November 1880, fifty-year-old schoolteacher and cop killer1 Louise Michel returned to France at the conclusion of a lengthy exile in the South Pacific for her participation in the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871. During her exile, her politics had matured into a thoroughgoing anarchism opposing all forms of hierarchy and oppression. She immediately threw herself back into radical organizing in Paris.
According to Maurice Dommanget,2 Louise Michel was among the first to announce the black flag as an emblem of the anarchist movement—though below, we shall see evidence suggesting that unknown laborers had already employed the black flag thus for years in Lyon and likely elsewhere. On March 9, 1883, Louise Michel used a black petticoat as a flag during a demonstration of the unemployed and desperate, during which participants looted several bakeries. Nine days later, on March 18, the twelve-year anniversary of the outbreak of the Paris Commune, she made a speech at the radical club Salle Favié in the poor Belleville neighborhood of Paris:
“No more red flags, wet with the blood of our fighters. I will raise the black flag, in mourning for our dead—and for our illusions.”
On June 22, 1883, Michel stood trial for the demonstration of the previous March. “Why did we march under the black flag?” she addressed the courtroom. “Because this flag is the flag of strikes and it indicates that the worker has no bread.” The court sentenced Louise Michel to six years in prison for “having done nothing to discourage looting.”
Le Drapeau Noir: War on All Laws, Codes, Judges, and Police Officers
On August 12, 1883, shortly after Louise Michel stood trial in Paris, a new anarchist newspaper appeared in Lyon, France, entitled Le Drapeau Noir (“The Black Flag”). Le Drapeau Noir only ran for 17 issues under that name; it was just one iteration of a series of different manifestations of the same publication—variously titled The Social Duty, The Revolutionary Standard, The Struggle, The Black Flag, The Riot, The Challenge, The Anarchist Hydra, The Alarm, and The Anarchic Duty—which was forced to change names constantly in order to stay ahead of state repression and censorship.
In the first article in this newspaper, entitled “The Premier of the Black Flag: To Anarchists,” the editors spelled out their aspirations:
Is there a need for a program when we take the title “The Black Flag” for our newspaper; are we not already indicating what our course of action will be? In taking this title, we were inspired by the local history of the city of Lyon, because it is on the heights of Croix-Rousse and Vaisse that the workers, driven by hunger, displayed it for the first time, as a sign of mourning and revenge, and thus made it the emblem of social demands. By taking this title, therefore, it means that we will always be on the side of the workers against the exploiters, on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors.
It is a commitment that we will not fail, taking inspiration from the campaign that our predecessors started with The Social Duty, The Revolutionary Standard, and The Struggle; we will see The Black Flag fly at the front in the assault that the anarchists carry out against this corrupt old society, which is already trembling on its foundations; an organ of struggle and combat, The Black Flag will wage war on all the abuses, all the prejudices, all the vices, all the hypocrisies, which, under the name of social institutions, are currently joining forces to delay the fall of this rotten old world, which, left to its own devices, would soon collapse under the weight of its infamies.
Supporters of absolute freedom, we will wage war on all those pseudo-liberals, makers of laws, who only understand freedom when it is well regulated, for we believe that freedom is only real if it is unhindered; we will wage war on laws, codes, judges, police officers, and all institutions, in the end, whose real goal is to restrict this freedom, which we proclaim so loudly, and to promote the exploitation of the masses by a privileged minority.
In the second article, the editors went on to make clear the reason for their preference for the black flag:
“Events, everyday facts, have made it clear to us that the red flag, so gloriously defeated, might well, if victorious, conceal within its flaming folds the ambitious dreams of a few self-seeking schemers. For it has already hosted a government and served as a standard for a constituted authority. It was then that we understood that it could no longer be anything for us, the ungovernables of every day and the rebels of every hour, but an embarrassment or an illusion.”
The Alarm: The Emblem of Hunger
According to the anarchist paper The Alarm, anarchists in the United States marched with the black flag for the first time on November 27, 1884, Thanksgiving Day, in a demonstration explicitly calling for the forcible abolition of property and wage labor. The following quotations are drawn from an article entitled “The Black Flag: The Emblem of Hunger Unfurled by the Proletariats of Chicago,” in the November 29, 1884 issue of that paper.3
The day designated, Thursday, the 27th of November, opened in sleet and rain. The wind blew sharp and frosty and left a stinging, uncomfortable sensation upon the exposed portion of the face or hands. At the time announced, 2:30 pm, over three thousand persons had assembled on Market street, between Madison and Randolph. The mingled rain and sleet fell unpityingly from above, while the ground beneath was covered with mud and water. The severity of the weather showed some of the spirit that must be in the people who were not deterred by it.
The first speaker declared the demonstration “an assemblage of men in the interest of humanity” and presented a critique of capitalism:
Now, when the market is glutted with clothing, the mills shut down, and thousands are thrown out of work and consequently deprived of the means to get any of that over-supply, and the result is that men must go ragged because there is too much clothing in the country. This is true of all other things. People must live out of doors, because there are too many houses in the country. There are so many houses now vacant that there is no demand for more, and therefore the builders are idle and cannot earn money to pay rent with. Think of it! Ragged because there is too much clothing in the country. Living out doors because there are too many houses in the country. Hungry because there is too much bread in the country, and freezing because there is too much coal in the country. Can this continue? Is there a man so blind that he cannot see that this system must be changed?
Among the others who took the podium was the anarchist August Spies, who was subsequently murdered by the state in the Haymarket tragedy.
The next speaker was August Spies. He pointed to the black flag and said this is the first time that emblem of hunger and starvation has been unfurled on American soil. It represents that these people have begun to reach the condition of starvation of the older countries. We have got to strike down these robbers that are robbing the working people.
After the speeches, the march got underway:
Two large flags, one black and the other red, headed the procession. About midway the procession, there was [sic] two more large flags, one black and the other red.
The march concluded at the offices of The Alarm and Arbeiter Zeitung, #107 Fifth Avenue.
Here, the crowd assembled amid the strains of [the French revolutionary anthem] ‘Marseillaise,’ the waving of the black and red flag, and the cheers of the thoroughly abused proletariat.”
Sergei Eistenstein: Red Flags, Black Flags, White Flags
In the early Soviet film Battleship Potemkin, director Sergei Eisenstein wished to depict the rebels raising a red flag over the battleship. But the black-and-white film of the period rendered the color red as black. In order to get the effect he wanted, he had to film the scenes with a white flag in place of a red one, then have the flag hand-tinted red, one frame at a time. The resulting propaganda coup drew thunderous applause from dutiful Bolsheviks.
There is a heavy-handed metaphor here about who really made the Russian Revolution and how it was depicted afterwards. Every real red flag looks like a black flag to history, and those flags have subsequently been subtracted from the official narrative—whereas the famous red flags of widely circulating state propaganda were actually… the flags of surrender.
André Breton: The Colors of Freedom
The following text by senior surrealist André Breton originally appeared in Arcane 17 in 1945. It was translated into English in The Rebel Worker #7, December 1966, and reprinted in Dancin’ in the Streets: Anarchists, IWWs, Surrealists, Situationists, & Provos in the 1960s—As Recorded in the Pages of The Rebel Worker & Heatwave.
Ranged above our heads, the flaglike windows forever unlit, continued to lap up their measure of air. They had the dimensions of those red cloth flags which in Paris flank certain highway works and from which there stand out, in big black letters, separated by dots, the inscription “SADE,” which has often returned to me in reverie.
The red flag, free from any mark or inscription—this flag I shall always see with the same vision I had at seventeen when during a popular demonstration just before the other war; I saw it unfurled by thousands, low in the sky of the Pré Saint-Gervais. And yet, I feel that reasoning is powerless to intervene here—my pulse will continue to beat yet more powerfully when I recall the moment that this flamboyant sea, in places flowing but thinly and restrictedly was pierced by the soaring flight of black flags.
At that time I had not much political consciousness, and I must admit I am perplexed when I take it on myself to gauge what degree of consciousness I now have attained. But, more than ever, the currents of sympathy and antipathy seem to me strong enough to demand the subjection of ideology; and I know that my heart was set beating, is still set beating, by that day’s very movement. In the deepest galleries of my heart I shall always rediscover the swaying to-and-fro of these countless tongues of flame among which a few linger to lick a marvelous carbonized flower.
The present generation will be hardly able to imagine a spectacle of that order. The heart of the proletariat had not been rent as yet by innumerable factions. The torch of the Paris Commune was far from being extinguished; there were many hands there which had held that torch—a torch uniting all in its great light, which would have been Iess beautiful, less true, without a few spiraling wreaths of thick smoke. So much individually disinterested faith, so much resolution and ardor could be read in these faces; so much nobleness, too, in those of the veterans. Around the black flags, to be sure, the effect of sheer physical suffering could be sensed more strongly, but passion had really burned itself into some eyes, had left there unforgettable points of white heat. It always will seem as if the flame had spread over them all, burning them only less or more fiercely; serving to maintain some in their absolutely realizable and well-based demands and hopes, while leading others, more rarely, to burn themselves out on the spot in an inexorable attitude of sedition and defiance.
The condition of humanity is such (independently of the ultra-amendable social condition which man has made) that this last attitude especially of which there is no lack in the history of the intellect of illustrious respondents, whether named Pascal, Nietzsche, Strindberg, or Rimbaud has always seemed to me absolutely justifiable on the emotive plane, leaving out of account the purely utilitarian reasons for which society may repress such an attitude. One is compelled at least to recognize, that it alone is marked by an infernal grandeur. I shall never forget the exaltation and the pride which overcame me, when as a child I was taken for one of the first times into a cemetery, at the discovery among so many depressing or ridiculous monuments of a slab of granite engraved in red capitals with the superb device Neither God Nor Master. Poetry and art will always retain a preference for all which transfigures humankind in the desperate, irreducible demand which, now and then, takes a derisory chance to make in life.
The fact is that over art and poetry also, whether one likes it or not, there flies a flag in turn—red and black. There, too, time is urgent. It is a question of insuring that from human sensibility is drawn all that it is capable of giving. But whence comes this apparent ambiguity as to the color?
Perhaps it is not given to any man to act on the sensibility of other men in order to mold and enlarge that awareness, except at the price of offering himself as a sacrifice to all the scattered forces of the soul of his time: forces which, in general, only seek each other in an attempt to pronounce mutual exclusions. It is in this sense that such a man is, has always been and, by a mysterious decree of these forces, must be at the same time their victim and their executioner. Thus, the same is necessarily the case as regards the taste for human liberty which, called to extend its field of receptivity to all in practically infinite proportions, draws down on a single person all the dire consequences of excess. Liberty does not consent to caress this earth except in taking into account those who have known, or have at least, partly known, how to live because they have loved her to a point of madness.
Jean Genet: “The Kind of Revolution I’d Like to See”
When I was invited by the Cuban Cultural Affairs, I said, “Yes, I’d like very much to go to Cuba, but on one condition: I’ll pay for my own trip, I’ll pay for my stay there, and I’ll go where I want and stay where I want,” and I said, “I’d like very much to go, if it really is the kind of revolution I’d like to see, that is, if there aren’t any more flags, because the flag, as a sign of recognition, as an emblem around which a group is formed, has become a castrating and deadly piece of theatricality and the national anthem? Ask him if there is no longer a Cuban flag and a national anthem.”
-Jean Genet, interview with Hubert Fichte
Howard J. Ehrlich: Why the Black Flag?
From Reinventing Anarchy, Again.
The black flag is the symbol of anarchy. It evokes reactions ranging from horror to delight among those who recognize it. Find out what it means and prepare to see it at more and more public gatherings… Anarchists are against all government because they believe that the free and informed will of the individual is the ultimate strength of groups and of society itself. Anarchists believe in individual responsibility and initiative and in the whole-hearted cooperation of groups composed of free individuals. Government is the opposite of this ideal, relying as it does on brute force and deliberate fraud to expedite control of the many by the few. Whether this cruel and fraudulent process is validated by such mythical concepts as the divine right of kings, democratic elections, or a people’s revolutionary government makes little difference to anarchists. We reject the whole concept of government itself and postulate a radical reliance on the problem-solving capacity of free human beings.
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 pretenses, hypocrisies, and cheap chicaneries of governments… Black is also a color 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 labor 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 color of inconsolable grief.
But black is also beautiful. It is a color of determination, of resolve, of strength, a color 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.
Anonymous: The Opposite of Surrender
I had the good fortune some years ago to be present at a small town in the South when a young punk rocker was showing his even younger brother around the collective house he had recently moved into.
“What does the black flag mean?” asked the younger sibling, referring to the square of threadbare fabric displayed on the front porch.
I awaited the answer with some curiosity, as I inferred that it might be one of the first times that the elder brother had been invited to explain the complexities of anarchist doctrine.
“Oh, that?” the punk rocker answered. “It’s like—the opposite of surrender.”
Appendix: On Anarchist Identity
Asked whether he himself was an anarchist, Santiago Sierra replied: “I regard anarchism as a political and behavioral philosophy with which I identify fully. However, anarchism is, above all, morality and implies a way of life without concessions. In this sense, I would not be, so much, because my life is far from that of any anarchist militant.”
This humble answer is reminiscent of the response of Chilean student José Domingo Gómez Rojas when special minister José Astorquiza demanded to know whether he was an anarchist: “I do not have, dear Minister, sufficient moral discipline to assume that title, which I will never merit.” Gómez Rojas was nonetheless murdered by the Chilean state while in custody.
The important thing is to destroy the mechanisms that centralize violence and control.
“They have a black flag at half-mast for hope and melancholy that they bear through life, knives to cut the bread of friendship, and some rusted weapons so they never forget. They are not one in one in one hundred, and yet nevertheless they exist. They stand arm in arm in joy. And for this, they are always standing. The anarchists.”
-Léo Ferré, “Les Anarchistes,” which he performed for the first time on May 10, 1968, at the annual gathering of the Anarchist Federation at the Mutualité in Paris, coinciding with the outbreak of barricading that led to a countrywide revolt and general strike.
According to the April 10, 1871 issue of the official journal of the Commune, “There is an energetic woman fighting in the ranks of the 61st Battalion. She has killed several constables and police officers.” George Clemenceau confirms that this was a matter of life or death: “In order not to be killed herself, she killed others… How she escaped being killed a hundred times over before my very eyes, I’ll never know. And I only watched her for an hour.” ↩
Writing in in The History of the Red Flag, from Its Origins to the War of 1939. ↩
Apparently, the black flag represented hunger itself before it became the standard of those who hunger for a world without oppression. For example, in the November 17, 1861 edition of the New York Times, a front-page article that includes reporting on food shortages in South Carolina is subtitled “The Black Flag in South Carolina.” ↩