“Introduction to the South African Edition” of Bonanno’s “Anarchism and the National Liberation Struggle”, 1994 – by “L.V.”

A previous post carried the 1994 South African edition of Alfredo Bonanno’s Anarchism and the National Liberation Struggle. This post provides the digital text of the “Introduction to the South African Edition” of 1994. There is significant continuity between this text and later Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF) positions e.g. a rejection of vulgar “we’re all in the same boat” economism, a stress on a class struggle approach to working within national liberation struggles, and an emphasis on the common interests of the whole working class.  There are two important breaks, however, that are worth noting. First, the WSF explicitly rejected the notion of “separate organisations” for each oppressed sector of the working class, in favour a common struggle against all forms of oppression. Second, the WSF placed far more emphasis on the important connections between the class system and the reproduction of other forms of oppression, such as national oppression.

Anyway, onward:


“The anarchist programme concerning the national liberation struggle is very clear: it must nit go towards constituting an ‘intermediate stage’ towards the social revolution through the formation of new national States. Anarchists refuse to participate in national liberation fronts; they participate in class fronts which may or may not be involved in national liberation struggles. The struggle must spread to establish economic, political and social structures in the liberated territories based on federalist and libertarian principles.”ALFREDO BONANNO 1978.

This important pamphlet attempts to develop an anarchist internationalist position on the ever present reality of national liberation struggles and the national question.  Wide ranging in the topics it covers – from internal colonialism to a critique of certain Marxist views – the pamphlet argues that anarchists should support national liberation struggles insofar as they are waged by and for the oppressed classes, and that the national question can only be resolved by the frees [sic.] association of peoples on a libertarian and federalist basis.


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This pamphlet represents an attempt to develop an anarchist internationalist stance on the ever present and ever controversial issue of the national liberation struggle (NLS), and, more broadly, the “national question” itself.  We can broadly understand the NLS to mean a struggle against a relationship of exploitation and domination involving a NATIONAL group. Such a struggle is of obvious importance to us as anarchists, because we are opposed to all oppression, and believe that it must be ended by revolutionary action.

The topics covered by Bonanno range from internal colonialism, imperialism, class identity, to incisive critiques of certain Marxist positions on this issue. However, two main arguments are made in this text. Firstly, he argues that it [sic.] only revolution, based on libertarian and federalist structures, can make possible the free association of human groups, thereby solving the national question.

Secondly, and far more importantly for our purposes, Bonanno makes the case that anarchists should fully support national liberation struggles (i.e. against imperialism and internal colonialism) insofar as they are the struggles of the oppressed classes (workers and peasants) themselves.  This is because different classes within the oppressed national have different interests and therefore also end goals within the NLS. That of the national aspirant capitalist-cum-politician class is to exploit and dominate their compatriots. This is obviously no solution at all for the oppressed classes.

What Bonanno is pointing to is that NLS can assume a variety of forms: ranging from revolutionary class struggle against oppression, aiming at the institution of an anarchist society, to a nationalist (class alliance) form, typically concerned with forming a national state. This, [sic.] may be the division of an existing state into several new one (as in Czechoslovakia), or the reshaping of an old state into a new form (as in South Africa), but whatever the form of the new state its function is that of all states: to serve ruling class interests.

As it stands, the pamphlet has only one real problem. Although Bonanno repeatedly refers to “exploitation”, no mention whatsoever is to be found of “domination”. Yet as anarchists, we are not merely opposed to “exploitation” but [unequal –  editor] power relations themselves. It is precisely this that distinguishes us from other socialists, and it is precisely for this reason that we favour federalist and libertarian forms of organisation.

But the pamphlet is still clearly highly relevant to South Africa.  Firstly, Black people have long been engaged in what might be conceptualised as a national liberation struggle against post – colonial white settlerism or “colonialism of a special type” (ie. South Africa, although independent, retains within itself the features of White colonialism).   Secondly,since the end of the Second World War at least, nationalism has the primary form taken by resistance to Apartheid – Capitalism (see O’Meara in M.T. Murray (editor) South African Capitalism and Black Political Opposition, esp. pp. 389 – 392). nationalism [sic.] is exemplified in the politics of African National Congress (ANC) , Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and even South African Communist Party (SACP); the SACP believes that a “national democratic revolution” must be achieved before class revolution can take place. (Previously, Black nationalism was largely confined to Black intellectuals and petty businessmen).

And finally the importance of a class perspective on national struggle and nationalism is increasingly obvious as the country moves, by means of the “reform” period,  into a situation where the majority of Black people are left out of the “new South Africa”, whilst at the same time a small elite of Black mangers [sic.], politicians, businessmen, professionals, and skilled, often unionised Black (male) workers are absorbed into the barely changed structures of State and capital i.e. the White ruling class (see Morris, February 1993, in Work in Progress, no.87, pp. 6 – 9).  This is a clear case of class interests and divisions shattering the “nation”. It might be worth noting that the White nation is also fracturing in class lines as the White upper classes withdraw from White workers the privileges (e.g. job reservation, high wages) that used to buy the acquiescence of the latter…

What follows is an attempt to extend Bonanno’s analysis to the problems of building a revolutionary anarchist  movement.  Theoretical clarity is an essential part of this task (see Bratach Dubh Preface in this pamphlet).  So let us examine the relationship between nationalism and class carefully.

We must recognise two factors. Firstly, as anarchists we must recognise that national oppression (like racism, sexism etc.) means that specific sections or fractions within the oppressed classes are doubly oppressed: both because of their class position and as a nationality. Three points follow. First, this means that within the oppressed classes (which are multi-national) certain groups are subject to relations of [national – editor] oppression. Second, because national oppression has its own independent reality (from class oppression etc.) and is obviously not confined to any one class,  it  (like other non class oppressions eg. race  etc.) can and does provide the basis for cross class alliances class [sic.] (which are not in the long term interests of all [oppressed – editor] classes). Third, it means that the unity of the oppressed classes cannot be assumed: that they may be easily and deeply divided.

Secondly we must not be blind to the fact that nationalism really does give people in the oppressed classes something.  “This ‘something’ is identity, pride, a feeling of community and solidarity and of course physical self defence”  in the face of very real oppression ( Class War, Unfinished Business, pp. 50, 156 – 7). And nationalism (called “ethnicity” ) can provide a very effective principle of organising for sectional gains and material benefits for members of all classes involved (see N. Chazan et al., Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa, Chapter 3; also Nelson Kasfir, in Kohli (editor), State and Development in the Third World). In South Africa, Afrikaner nationalism was not only supported by White Afrikaner farmers, traders, professionals, and financiers, but also by White workers because it successfully addressed their poverty, oppression as Afrikaners (most semi- and unskilled Whites were Afrikaners) and very real fears of Black competition  in the job market etc. (see L. Callinicos, 1993, A Place in the City, pp. 110 – 131, esp. pp. 120 – 123).

So, how do these points bear on anarchism? If we are to forge an effective and successful movement, we must, firstly recognise that the movement must be based on the oppressed classes. But we must recognise and challenge oppression within the class by separate organisations (e.g. Black only) if necessary. These organisations would be part of a broader revolutionary mass movement involving “many different groups and individuals … They will have different experiences and approaches and each will be good at different things” but will communicate and cooperate with one another (Class War, Unfinished Business, pp. 135-6). Federalist structures are ideally suited to this task.

At the same time we must strive to unite the oppressed classes, (guarding against the selfish manipulation of division by the bosses and the ambitious), to fight in their own class interests ie. for the overthrow of the ruling class.  Thirdly, we must combat the solidarity etc., given by nationalism with class identity, pride, community, solidarity, history, culture and achievements (Class War, Unfinished Business, pp. 50).

Finally, our role as revolutionaries. Our aim is to build a revolutionary and libertarian worker-peasant movement, (based on the oppressed classes, BUT recognising oppression and struggle within the class), which will strive to increase the militancy of struggles, to build a culture of revolution, and to build a situation of counter power, of peoples power.





About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).