Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The First Black Flag.

        The Black Flag has been associated with anarchism from around the 1880's, though it was also flown in the 1840s during hunger riots, as a symbol of the desperation of the starving urban poor.
        However I have no doubt the thoughts and ideas behind the Black Flag stretch well back into the annuls of time. Long before the word anarchism was in use, long before it was nailed to a pole, its ideas were in the minds of individuals. Deep in every heart there has always been the desire to be in charge of your own life, to be free, to question injustice, to challenge a wrong, to work in co-operation on equal terms.
      Victor Hugo tries to capture that spirit of the first "Black Flag" in his poem of that name. Though I think the poems stands on its own without the reference to Job.
The First Black Flag.

JOB. Hast thou ne'er heard men say
That, in the Black Wood, 'twixt Cologne and Spire,
Upon a rock flanked by the towering mountains,
A castle stands, renowned among all castles?
And in this fort, on piles of lava built,
A burgrave dwells, among all burgraves famed?
Hast heard of this wild man who laughs at laws--
Charged with a thousand crimes--for warlike deeds
Renowned--and placed under the Empire's ban
By the Diet of Frankfort; by the Council
Of Pisa banished from the Holy Church;
Reprobate, isolated, cursed--yet still
Unconquered 'mid his mountains and in will;
The bitter foe of the Count Palatine
And Treves' proud archbishop; who has spurned
For sixty years the ladder which the Empire
Upreared to scale his walls? Hast heard that he
Shelters the brave--the flaunting rich man strips--
Of master makes a slave? That here, above
All dukes, aye, kings, eke emperors--in the eyes
Of Germany to their fierce strife a prey,
He rears upon his tower, in stern defiance,
A signal of appeal to the crushed people,
A banner vast, of Sorrow's sable hue,
Snapped by the tempest in its whirlwind wrath,
So that kings quiver as the jades at whips?
Hast heard, he touches now his hundredth year--
And that, defying fate, in face of heaven,
On his invincible peak, no force of war
Uprooting other holds--nor powerful Caesar--
Nor Rome--nor age, that bows the pride of man--
Nor aught on earth--hath vanquished, or subdued,
Or bent this ancient Titan of the Rhine,
The excommunicated Job?

Victor Hugo.
         "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 pretences, hypocrisies, and cheap chicaneries of governments . . . Black is also a colour 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 labour 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 colour of inconsolable grief.
         "But black is also beautiful. It is a colour of determination, of resolve, of strength, a colour 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." ["Why the Black Flag?", Howard Ehrlich (ed.), Reinventing Anarchy, Again, pp. 31-2]
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