L.A. Motler, 1919, “Anarchist Communism in Plain English”

L.A. Motler, a British anarchist, was active in South Africa from the 1920s, and at some point joined or associated with the local Communist Party. More on his life here. This is the text of a short pamphlet he produced in 1919, sourced from here.

Anarchist Communism in Plain English

L.A. Motler

This is to explain exactly what Anarchist-Communists want, in as few words as possible, without waste of ink and paper.

Suppose you don’t know what Anarchism is. But you’d like to know of course. Without committing yourself one way or another?

Well, here goes.

First of all, we’ll bowl over that Sidney Street affair. Most of the chaps I’ve talked to have got that bee in their bonnet. But I don’t blame them for it, because we can’t always catch up with lies that get loose from the press.

The Sidney Street anarchists are easily disposed of. They weren’t anarchists at all. You will admit that an anarchist ought to know what an anarchist is, so you can take our word for it. If however you want facts you can get same from our offices.

But, you’ll say, what about all the assassinations and the bomb outrages by anarchists?

This is an old argument which doesn’t apply now. Most of the assassinations and outrages lately haven’t been done by anarchists. There is nothing in anarchism that preaches bomb-throwing.

Of course it’s true there have been anarchists who threw bombs maybe, just the same as there have been Roman Catholics who cut up their wives into bits. If you agree that the murder by Crippen is not an argument against the Pope, then an outrage by an anarchist proves nothing against Anarchism.

If you kick a dog, that dog will bite you, but it does not prove the dog is an anarchist or a Wesleyan or a Mormon. Much he same thing happens in life; the people who chopped off King Charles’ head were not anarchists. They were considered pious.

And now for Anarchism.

The word means “no-rule” or no- government. What, you say, no government? How could the country be run? There would simply be chaos.

Well you can’t have a spring clean, without upsetting a pail now and again. But what does it prove?

If you say “there will be a chaos” then you are saying perhaps the nastiest thing you have ever said against a government.

What would you think of a man who said that if he left home for a week his family would be fighting amongst themselves? You would say of course that he was a duffer in family affairs.

That is exactly what you suggest about the Government. A Government that cannot be thrown out without the people falling on each other with sticks is a pretty sort of Government.

In the first place, WHY should the people start fighting each other? Because some people have too much and some have nothing at all. Mind you, they are all the same kind of people too. Why should one Britisher have more than another?

Why should some people have one pair of boots stuck together with old pieces of tin and tacks, whilst others have dozens at home they don’t use?

Why are the shops stuck full of new suits and you can’t afford one although there’s a patch in your pants?

Why? Because we have such a brainy Government- and such a brainy people. That’s why.

I don’t want to pile it on- but look for yourself. Look at the war for instance. As soon as the Germans retired over the Rhine, we had millions out of work. Look at the Slough, look at any old thing you like- including the Government ale. Then ask yourself if YOU could have made a worse hash of it.

Of course not.

If you want a thing done, the best way is to do it YOURSELF.

What is the position? The position is that there are forty-six millions of people who want food, clothes, houses and work. Mid you, I don’t mean it is the working class only. We want to get rid of that pretty name. A shirker is a shirker weather he is a tramp or a Duke. When everybody gets to work then we’ll have more than enough for all. The principle is not share an share alike, but help yourself to what is good for you. Can a Duke eat more than a navy?

The questions really arise:

Who is to do the dirty work?

Who is to have the motor cars and who is to walk?

Who is to have the salmon and who the Yarmouth Bloaters?

And so on. And so on.

The chap who asks those questions seems to think that without a brainless Government to kick them the British nation is a nation of idiots. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT?

Can’t the people take over the land and grow things on it? Can’t they take over the factories and run them?

Of course I don’t mean “Can any busy- body jump into the ex-bosses’ shoes and tell you how to run it if you’ll let him lead you.”

Nunno. Having sat on Government and capitalists, are we going to be ruled by nosey-parkers and number eight hats?

Anarchism means no-rule. That is to say “Mind you own business.” And when the people start doing that, they have no use for tyrants, big and little, plain and coloured.

Communism means working together for the good of all. Consequently the people will be prepared to accept the ex-capitalists as fellow-workers provided they do USEFUL work. And by working together in staunch co-operations, the people will be in less danger of any tyrant resurrecting himself and his friends and going back to the “good old days.”

That’s all right you say, but REVOLUTION MEANS BLOODSHED.

How terrible!

When the Government said, “Line up boys, and give the Germans what for, so we can pinch the German Colonies and anything that’s lying handy. Down with the Beast of Berlin!” did anybody say-



You can’t learn to swim without getting wet. But because a Revolution MIGHT mean bloodshed, that is no reason why it should mean bloodshed.

How many of the people are armed? Why there aren’t enough guns round among the workers to run a Wild West show.

The soldiers and the police will do all the dirty work- if they agree to do it- for our kind masters.
Who are the soldiers and the police?

They are taken from the working class. They might be making bread or clothes or boots. They might be building houses. Is that good enough for the capitalists? Nunno.

Having pinched most of what the people earn, and “owning” all the land, they want somebody to protect them from the people, so they have the Army and Navy.

When the Revolution comes, the capitalists will be so fond of the OLD COUNTRY, they will collect all the boodle they can and make a dash for South America with the swag.

And they will leave the army and the police to fight the rest of the working class.

Does that strike you as funny?

You can’t be on the side of the capitalists naturally, whether you are a worker of any sort, a policeman, a soldier, a sailor or an airman.

You can’t be on the side of the Government, which runs the country for the benefit of the capitalists.

Get into the ranks of the Anarchist-Communists.


L. A. Motler.


Analysis of the ICU: Bradford, ‘Strikes in the Natal Midlands: landlords, labour tenants and the ICU’ (‘Africa Perspective’)

Helen Bradford, 1983, “Strikes in the Natal Midlands: landlords, labour tenants and the ICU,” Africa Perspective, number 22, pp. 2-25.

Drawn from Bradford’s classic social history work on the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) in the South African countryside in the 1920s. The ICU had some syndicalist influences.

Get the PDF here.

Analysis of the ICU: Goatley, ‘The ICU,’ from ‘The Socialist’

Lisa Goatley,1993, “The ICU,” The Socialist: Journal of the International Socialists of South Africa (ISSA), June/July, number 11, p. 15.

This short analysis was the first in a series on working class history in South Africa in the paper of the International Socialists of South Africa (ISSA, now the group Keep Left). The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) was a mass general union formed in South Africa in 1919, which had some syndicalist influences.  ISSA / Keep Left was/ is a Trostkyist Marxist  group in the International Socialist Tradition, associated with Tony Cliffe and Alex Callinicos.

Get the PDF here.

Analysis (in French): Patrick Marcolini, “L’anarchisme en terre africaine:Les composantes africaines du mouvement libertaire”

L’anarchisme en terre africaine:Les composantes africaines du mouvement libertaire par Patrick Marcolini (OLS)

From here

L’absence en France d’histoires du mouvement libertaire qui englobent sa composante africaine pourrait laisser croire que l’anarchisme est un phénomène occidental.

Pourtant, des organisations ont tenté de faire vivre l’idéal anarchiste et syndicaliste révolutionnaire sur la terre africaine.

Les premières organisations anarchistes et syndicalistes révolutionnaires africaines apparaissent à la fin du XIXe siècle, d’une part en Afrique du Sud, d’autre part au Mozambique et en Angola.

Dans ces deux colonies portugaises, ce sont des ouvriers émigrés de la métropole ou des militants emprisonnés pour leurs activités politiques et déportés sur place qui, une fois libérés, forment les premiers groupes d’obédience anarchiste et anarcho-syndicaliste sous l’influence de la puissante CGT portugaise.

En Afrique du Sud, ce sont aussi des travailleurs venus d’Europe qui forment les premières cellules libertaires, notamment une virulente section sud-africaine de l’IWW qui anime entre 1910 et 1913 une série de grèves dures débouchant sur des combats de rue.

Très vite, ces militants diffusent leurs idées et aident à la formation de syndicats entièrement composés et animés par des travailleurs non européens : ce sera notamment l’IWA (Industrial Workers of Africa), premier syndicat de travailleurs africains dans l’histoire du continent, fondé en 1917 sur le modèle des IWW américains, et qui fusionne par la suite avec deux autres organisations pour créer l’ICU (Industrial and Commercial Workers Union).

Celle-ci restera le plus grand mouvement de masse du peuple noir en Afrique du Sud jusqu’aux mobilisations de l’ANC dans les années 1950 [1] .

Toutefois, les influences syndicalistes révolutionnaires finissent par se diluer au sein de l’ICU, qui périclite dans les années 1930 par manque de démocratie interne, et faute d’une stratégie clairement définie.

D’une façon générale, les années 1930 voient décliner l’anarchisme et le syndicalisme révolutionnaire partout où leurs premières graines avaient éclos. Les différents mouvements subissent la répression de la part des États coloniaux et doivent aussi faire face à la fois à la concurrence des organisations parrainées par l’Union soviétique et au développement de partis nationalistes qui revendiquent l’indépendance.

Dans l’après-guerre, le « socialisme africain », majoritairement étatiste et autoritaire, viendra occuper la place laissée vacante par les mouvements anarchistes. Seules des minorités explorent les voies plus radicales d’un marxisme libertaire, à l’image de quelques partisans de Pierre Mulele dans le Congo des années 1960 [2].

Ceux-ci prennent contact avec l’Internationale situationniste (IS) avant de prendre part aux révoltes de l’université de Lovanium, à Kinshasa, en 1967 et 1969. Il en restera un texte étonnant et toujours d’actualité, Conditions du mouvement révolutionnaire congolais, destiné à être publié par l’IS sous forme de brochure pour sa propagande en Afrique noire, mais finalement resté inédit [3] . Les années 1980-1990 voient refleurir l’anarchisme un peu partout en Afrique noire.

Au Nigeria se forme notamment l’Awareness League (« ligue de l’éveil »), à l’origine un groupe d’étudiant-e-s, de journalistes et de profs de l’université de Nsukka. De formation marxiste pour la plupart, ils finissent par se rallier aux idéaux socialistes libertaires et anarcho-syndicalistes en 1990. Très active dans la lutte contre la dictature, l’organisation voit alors ses effectifs grandir, atteignant même un pic d’un millier de membres en 1997. Une radio anarchiste émettant depuis Enugu est fondée en 2001 [4] .

En Afrique du Sud, plusieurs organisations du même type existaient depuis les années 1980. Unifiées, elles forment en 2003 le Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) [5] , qui est sans conteste l’organisation libertaire la plus vivante aujourd’hui sur le continent, réunissant des militant-e-s dans plusieurs villes, quelle que soit la couleur de leur peau, autour d’une action multiforme : luttes sociales, cours de formation théorique et pratique dans les syndicats et les associations, diffusion de livres (via Zabalaza Books), soutien aux prisonniers (via l’Anarchist Black Cross), création de potagers communautaires, de bibliothèques et de crèches populaires, etc.

Le ZACF est devenu aujourd’hui l’élément moteur de l’anarchisme africain : désormais présent au Swaziland, il entretient aussi des liens étroits avec le réseau libertaire Uhuru au Zimbabwe et le collectif Wiyathi (« liberté ») au Kenya, qui combine depuis plusieurs années activisme culturel et propagande anarchiste. Le ZACF fournit même informations et matériel politique aux individu-e-s et groupuscules anarchistes éparpillés dans tout le reste de l’Afrique (Soudan, Congo, Ouganda, etc.).

Dans les pays de l’ex-empire français, on note l’existence au Sénégal depuis les années 1980 d’un Parti anarchiste pour les libertés individuelles dans la République (PALIR), la présence en Guinée, au Burkina Faso, au Mali ou au Congo de mouvements syndicaux démocratiques et radicaux [6].

Il faut espérer que puissent émerger au sein de ces mouvements des tendances capables de défendre un projet libertaire sur la terre africaine, aussi soucieux de combattre le néocolonialisme françafricain que le capitalisme indigène qui pourrait un jour lui succéder.

Patrick Marcolini – Offensive Libertaire et Sociale (OLS)


• The IWW, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Working Class Struggle in South Africa, 1910-1921 , Lucien van der Walt.

• “Sifuna Zonke !” Revolutionary Syndicalism, the Industrial Workers of Africa, and the Fight Against Racial Capitalism in South Africa, 1915-1921 , Bikisha Media Collective (téléchargeables sur le site de Zabalaza Books)

• African Anarchism : The History of a Movement , Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariwey (militants de l’Awareness League), See Sharp Press, 1997.

Sites en anglais : http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/africa.html & http://zabalaza.net


[1] L’ICU comptera jusqu’à cent mille adhérent-e-s, avec des sections en Namibie, en Zambie et au Zimbabwe.

[2] Ancien ministre du leader indépendantiste Patrice Lumumba, Pierre Mulele menait à l’époque une guérilla insurrectionnelle contre Mobutu.

[3] Le texte a été repris dans les Œuvres de Guy Debord chez Gallimard (p. 692-698). On le trouve aussi en ligne sur http://juralibertaire.over-blog.com/article-conditions-du-mouvement-revolutionnaire-congolais-41881017.html

[4] Autre expérience importante en Afrique de l’Ouest : en 1997, en Sierra Leone, la fondation par les travailleurs des mines de diamant d’une section de l’IWW forte de trois mille membres. Malheureusement, la guerre civile balaiera cette organisation, contraignant nombre de ses militants à l’exil.

[5] Zabalaza signifie lutte en zoulou.

[6] Souvent en contact avec la CNT française. Cf. les revues Afrique XXI et Afrique sans chaînes, rédigées par des membres de la CNT en association avec des correspondant-e-s syndicaux et associatifs en Afrique.

Photo: ICU poem at Workers Museum (Newtown, Johannesburg, 2014)

After years of neglect, the Workers Museum at the old municipal workers compound in Johannesburg has been upgraded. The story of working class movements presented there is, SAASHA is reliably informed, is selective, with (for example) FOSATU completely absent.

Nonetheless, the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) does get mentioned. The photo below, of an ICU poem in the display, was provided by Warren McGregor. Its gives some sense of the syndicalist influences on the ICU — a union marked by a melange of influences and ideas from 1919 to its decline years later. For some material on the Workers Museum (formerly part of the Workers Library and Museum), see here

Johannesburg-ICU at WLM

The Rise and Fall of the ICU: a Case of Self-Destruction? – Phil Bonner, 1978

The Rise and Fall of the ICU: a Case of Self-Destruction?

The Rise and Fall of the ICU: a Case of Self-Destruction?

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This essay, which first appeared in the South African Labour Bulletin, sought to draw the lessons of the spectacular rise and fall of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU) in South Africa. Formed in 1919, merged soon afterwards with the syndicalist Industrial Workers of Africa, the ICU was influenced by syndicalism, Garveyism, liberalism and other currents. It was, in the 1920s, the single largest black protest movement in the country – reaching an estimated 100,000 members by 1927. It also spread into neighbouring colonies. Yet by 1931 the ICU – in South Africa, that is – was a shell of its former self. Bonner argued that the ICU failed because it lacked a clear strategy, a focus on shopfloor organising, and loose structures more generally – mindful of the ICU, the new generation of unionists in the 1970s and 1980s (Bonner among them) sought to build unions that avoided these pitfalls. Elements of their strategy would later be known as “workerism.” Continue reading

The South African Wobblies: The Origins of Industrial Unions in South Africa – John Philips, 1978

The South African Wobblies: The Origins of Industrial Unions in South Africa, John Philips

The South African Wobblies: The Origins of Industrial Unions in South Africa by John Philips

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John Philip’s pioneering, hard-to-get study of syndicalism in South Africa, stressing the influence of the IWW. Despite some important factual errors and some gaps, this was for many years the most reliable text on the subject. It made use of American primary sources (such as the IWW’s Industrial Worker), and of South African secondary texts (like the Simons’ Class and Colour in South Africa). The PDF is the original version. The marked up version includes some insertions noting errors.

SOURCE: Ufahuma, volume 8, number 3 (1978) Continue reading