Anarchist symbolism

Anarchists have employed certain symbols for their cause, including most prominently the circle-A (Ⓐ) and the black flag (⚑),[1] although anarchists have historically largely denied the importance of symbols to political movement.[2]

Since the revival of anarchism around the start of the 21st century and concurrent with the rise of the anti-globalization movement, anarchist cultural symbols are widely present.[3]

Red flag

The red flag was one of first anarchist symbols and it was widely used in late 19th century by anarchists worldwide.[4] Peter Kropotkin preferred the use of the red flag.[5]

The red banner, which has always stood for liberty, frightens the executioners because it is so red with our blood. [...] Those red and black banners wave over us mourning our dead and wave over our hopes for the dawn that is breaking.[6][7]

Louise Michel

Use of the red flag by anarchists disappeared after the October Revolution, when red flags started to be associated only with communist parties and bureaucratic, reformist and authoritarian social democracy.[4]

Black flag

The black flag and the color black in general have been associated with anarchism since the 1880s. Many anarchist collectives contain the word "black" in their names. There have been a number of anarchist periodicals entitled Black Flag.[8]

The uniform blackness of the flag is in stark contrast to the colorful flags typical of most nation states. Additionally, as a white flag has been used to request parley or to surrender, the black flag symbolizes defiance and opposition to surrender.

Historical origins

The black flag represents the absence of a flag and thus stands in opposition to the very notion of nation states. In that light, the flag can be seen as a rejection of the concept of representation, or the idea that any person or institution can adequately represent a group of individuals. Modern anarchism has a shared ancestry with—amongst other ideologies—socialism, a movement strongly associated with the red flag. As anarchism became more and more distinct from socialism in the 1880s, it adopted the black flag in an attempt to differentiate itself.[2] However, some anarchists at the time such as Peter Kropotkin preferred to continue using the red flag rather than adopt the black.[5]

Subsequent use

The black flag first became associated with anarchism in the 1880s. The French anarchist paper, Le Drapeau Noir (The Black Flag), which existed until 1882, is one of the first published references to use black as an anarchist color. Black International was the name of a London anarchist group founded in July 1881. Louise Michel, participant in the Paris Commune in 1871, flew the black flag during demonstration of the unemployed in Paris in March 1883. An open-air meeting of the unemployed was broken up by the police and around 500 demonstrators, with Michel at the front carrying a black flag and shouting "Bread, work, or lead!" marched off towards the boulevard Saint-Germain. The crowd pillaged three baker's shops before the police attacked. Michel was arrested and sentenced to six years solitary confinement. Public pressure soon forced the granting of an amnesty.[9] According to Michel, the "black flag is the flag of strikes and the flag of those who are hungry".[10]

The black flag soon made its way to the United States. The black flag was displayed in Chicago at an anarchist demonstration in November 1884.[11] According to the English language newspaper of the Chicago anarchists, it was "the fearful symbol of hunger, misery and death".[12]

Bisected flag

The colors black and red have been used by anarchists since at least the late 1800s when they were used on cockades by Italian anarchists in the 1864 Bologna insurrection and in 1877 when anarchists entered the Italian town Letino carrying red and black flags to promote the First International.[2] Diagonally divided red and black flags were popularized during the Spanish Civil War by the anarcho-syndicalist labor union CNT[2] and are used to this day by anarchist organizations. Similar flags yet with different colors are commonly used to represent specific anarchist ideologies such as black and purple for anarcha-feminism, black and green for green anarchism and black and orange for mutualism.[13]

A similar flag is used by many anarcho-capitalists, using the colors gold and black, representing capitalism and anarchism respectively. The flag was first used publicly at a 1963 event organized by the libertarian businessman Robert LeFevre in the State of Colorado.[14] However, many anti-capitalist anarchists argue that anarchism is in principle anti-capitalist and that makes anarcho-capitalism an oxymoron.


Stylized Punk Circle-A

The circle-A is almost certainly the best-known present-day symbol for anarchy. It is a monogram that consists of the capital letter "A" surrounded by the capital letter "O". The letter "A" is derived from the first letter of "anarchy" or "anarchism" in most European languages and is the same in both Latin and Cyrillic scripts. The "O" stands for order and together they stand for "society seeks order in anarchy" (French: la société cherche l'ordre dans l'anarchie), a phrase written by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book What Is Property?[15][16]

The circle-A long predates the anarcho-punk movement, which was part of the punk rock movement of the late 1970s. However, the punk movement helped spread the circle-A symbol more widely and helped raise awareness of it among non-anarchists. This process began with the use of anarchist imagery when members of the band Crass became aware of the symbol while traveling through France.[17]

Black cat

The black cat, also called the "wild cat" or "sabot-cat", usually with an arched back and with claws and teeth bared, is closely associated with anarchism, especially with anarcho-syndicalism. It was designed by Ralph Chaplin, who was a prominent figure in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). As its stance suggests, the cat is meant to suggest wildcat strikes and radical unionism. The IWW was an important industrial union, and was the first American labor union to recruit and organize women and people of color, and played a critical role in the fight for the eight-hour work day and in free speech fights all over the country in the early 20th century. Their most famous and influential years were from 1905 until they were largely suppressed by the Palmer Raids.

The origin of the black cat symbol is unclear, but according to one story it came from an IWW strike that was going badly. Several members had been beaten up and were put in a hospital. At that time a skinny, black cat walked into the striker's camp. The cat was fed by the striking workers and as the cat regained its health the strike took a turn for the better. Eventually the striking workers got some of their demands and they adopted the cat as their mascot.[18]

The name Black Cat has been used for numerous anarchist-affiliated collectives and cooperatives, including a well-known music venue in Austin, Texas (which was closed following a July 6, 2002 fire) and a now-defunct "collective kitchen" in the University District of Seattle, Washington.

See also


  1. This character can be written as Unicode code point U+2691.
  2. Mckay, Ian, ed. (2008). "Appendix – The Symbols of Anarchy". An Anarchist FAQ. Stirling: AK Press. ISBN 1-902593-90-1. OCLC 182529204.
  3. Williams, Leonard (September 2007). "Anarchism Revived". New Political Science. Taylor & Francis. 29 (3): 297–312. doi:10.1080/07393140701510160.
  4. "Barwy anarchistyczne: Skąd czarne i czarno-czerwone flagi?" [Anarchist colours: Where are black and black-red flags from]. (in Polish). Centrum Informacji Anarchistycznej. June 19, 2012. Retrieved September 4, 2016.
  5. Kropotkin, Peter (1998). Act for Yourselves. Articles from Freedom 1886-1907. Freedom Press. p. 128. ISBN 0900384387.
  6. Michel, Louise (1981). Lowry, Bullitt; Gunter, Elizabeth (eds.). The Red Virgin. Memoirs Of Louise Michel. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press. pp. 193–194. ISBN 0-81730063-5. ISBN 978-0-817-30063-0.
  7. "The Red Flag of Anarchy". April 5, 2011. Retrieved May 23, 2018.
  8. Evren, Sureyyya (Summer 2014). "Black Flag White Masks: Anti-Racism and Anarchist Historiography". Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action. 8 (1): 23–43. Retrieved April 12, 2018.
  9. Woodcock, George (1962). Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. pp. 251–252.
  10. Michel, Louise (1981). The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel. p. 168.
  11. Avrich, Paul (1986). The Haymarket Tragedy. p. 145.
  12. Avrich, Paul (1986). The Haymarket Tragedy. p. 144.
  13. BDaddyUS (August 12, 2017). "Anarchist Flags: The Symbols of Anarchism". Green is the New Red. WordPress. Retrieved October 16, 2018.
  14. Rothbard, Murray N. (2007) The Betrayal of the American Right. Ludwig von Mises Institute. p. 188.
  15. Proudhon, Piere-Joseph (1994). Kelley, Donald R.; Smith, Bonnie G. (eds.). Proudhon: What is Property?. Cambridge University Press. p. 209. ISBN 978-0-521-40556-0. ISBN 0-52140556-4.
  16. Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (1840). Qu'est-ce que la propriété ? ou Recherche sur le principe du Droit et du Gouvernement (in French) (1st ed.). Paris: Brocard. p. 235.
  17. Appleford, Steve (June 10, 2005). "The Only Way to Be – Anarchy!". LA CityBeat. Los Angeles, California: Southland Publishing. Archived from the original on December 24, 2005. Retrieved August 30, 2007.
  18. What's this with a black cat & a wooden shoe? What do they have to do with anarchy?
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