Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle


“[It is not] ‘anti-national’ to be deeply suspicious of all nationalism, to be anti-nationalism. Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the 20th century. Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.”—Arundhati Roy

Training an antiauthoritarian lens on the history of South Asian struggles against colonialism and neocolonialism, Decolonizing Anarchism highlights lesser-known dissidents as well as neglected aspects of iconic figures. This reveals an alternate narrative of decolonization, in which achieving a nation-state is not the horizon of freedom. Debates central to the anarchist tradition—on rationalism, industrial development, and modernity—also shaped the dynamics of South Asian anticolonial resistance, with the additional dilemma of whether these were to be seen as quintessentially alien. Without imposing the specific language and history of Western anarchism, key principles nevertheless appear in different guises, with tendencies ranging from the progressive modernism of the antiauthoritarian Left to romantic antimodernism and insurrectionary nihilism. This facilitates not only a reinterpretation of the history of anticolonialism in India but also insight into the meaning of anarchism itself.
Anarchists and antiauthoritarians in colonized regions have been among the most progressive (though seldom dominant) elements in their own countries’ anticolonial resistance movements from Mexico to China. “Western” anarchists have acted on their principles by standing in solidarity with national liberation struggles in places such as nineteenth-century Poland to twenty-first-century Palestine. While it’s natural that there should be an affinity based on the principles of self-determination, autonomy, and self-governance (plus anticapitalist and anti-imperialist) rebellion, many anarchists wrestle with the contradictions of supporting a nationalist state-building project.
But, Ramnath argues, anticolonialism is not reducible to nationalism; it has also manifested in far more comprehensive visions of emancipatory transformation. In fact, an anarchist vision of alternate society closely echoes the concept of total decolonization on the political, economic, social, cultural, and psychological planes. Decolonization in the global South is also intrinsically linked to racial and economic justice in the global North. This emphasis illuminates the substantive contribution of an “anarchist people of color” politics to anarchist analysis and strategy—namely, foregrounding colonialism as a primary structure of oppression, as a nexus of the logics of state, capital, and race, while combating it in nonnationalist, antiauthoritarian ways.

Maia Ramnath teaches at New York University and is a board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies.

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Anarchist modernism: art, politics, and the first American avant-garde

The relationship of the anarchist movement to American art during the World War I era is most often described as a “tenuous affinity” between two distinct spheres: political and artistic. In Anarchist Modernismthe first in-depth exploration of the role of anarchism in the formation of early American modernism. Allan Antliff reveals that modernists participated in a wide-ranging movement that encompassed lifestyles, literature, and art, as well as politics. Drawing on a wealth of hitherto unknown information, including interviews and reproductions of lost works, he examines anarchism’s influence on a telling cross-section of artists such as Robert Henri, Elie Nadelman, Man Ray, and Rockwell Kent. He also traces the interactions between cultural figures and thinkers including Emma Goldman, Alfred Stieglitz, Ezra Pound, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. By situating American art’s evolution in the progressive politics of the time, Antliff offers a richly illustrated chronicle of the anarchist movement and also revives the creative agency of those who shaped and implemented modernism for radical ends.

Allan Antliff is Canada Research Chair in art history at the University of Victoria, Canada.

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