Review: Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags. Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination

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by Christopher Schmidt-Nowara

Under Three Flags is a work of “political astronomy that attempts to map the gravitational force of anarchism between militant nationalisms on opposite sides of the planet” (1-2). In the late nineteenth century, an era of “early globalization,” acts of political violence brought forth “a mass of draconian ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation, summary executions, and a sharp risein torture by police forces, public and secret, as well as militaries.” Then, as now, this subterranean war frequently burst to the surface for “the assassins, some of whom could well be described as early suicide-bombers,understood themselves as acting for a world-audience of news agencies,newspapers, religious progressives, working-class and peasant organizations, and so on” (4).

But the protagonists of Under Three Flags are not Al-Qaeda and American Special Forces. They are fin de siglo Filipino nationalists—José Rizal, Isabelo de los Reyes, and Mariano Ponce—who in their struggles against colonial reactionaries in Manila sallied forth to Europe and Asia. In cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and Hong Kong they met and read the works of anti-colonial nationalists from Cuba and Puerto Rico, Spanish masons, French and Russian anarchists, and modernist poets. They suffered repression at the hands of the Spanish government,from internal exile and execution in the Philippines to imprisonment and torture in the Barcelona fortress of Montjuich. Though they were committed to national independence, anarchism held the promise of radical change in situations of dire reaction. Propaganda of the deed,including assassinations of heads of state such as the Spanish premiere Antonio Cánovas del Castillo and the hurling of bombs into anonymous urban crowds, were weapons of the politically weak and marginalized transferable to anti-colonial struggles.

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