While anarchists have historically largely denied the importance of symbols to political movement, they have embraced certain symbols for their cause, including most prominently the circle-A and the black flag. Since the revival of anarchism at the turn of the 21st-century concurrent with the rise of the anti-globalization movement, anarchist cultural symbols are widely present.
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.
The uniform blackness of this flag is representative of the negation of all oppressive structures, in deliberate contrast to the colourful flags typical of most nation-states. Additionally, as a white flag is the universal symbol for surrender to superior force, the black flag is a symbol of defiance, an opposition to surrender.
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. Some anarchists at the time, such as Peter Kropotkin, preferred to continue using the red flag rather than adopt the black.
Both the black and red flags first gained notoriety for their use by Buccaneers, who were pirates of French origin operating in the West Indies. The black flag (later the "Jolly Roger") was displayed, or 'run up' the mast, first as an indication that the lives of the crew would be spared if they surrendered. If the crew resisted, the red flag would then be displayed to indicate that the offer of amnesty had been withdrawn; no prisoners would be taken. Clearly there is limited if any relationship between the use of red and black flags associated with political belief, and their use to indicate no quarter, though see Jolly Roger/Pirate flag below.
During the French Revolution, the red flag was adopted by the Jacobin Club, whose members controlled the insurrectionary Paris Commune during the assault on the Tuileries, the September Massacres, and throughout the Reign of Terror. In 1831, the black flag was displayed as an emblem of protest during the first Canut revolt, an uprising of silk workers in Lyon; it was also flown in the 1840s during hunger riots, as a symbol of the desperation of the starving urban poor.
It 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 of 1871, flew the black flag on March 9, 1883, during demonstration of the unemployed in Paris, France. 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. According to Michel, the "black flag is the flag of strikes and the flag of those who are hungry."
The black flag soon made its way to America. On November 27, 1884, the black flag was displayed in Chicago at an Anarchist demonstration. According to the English Language newspaper of the Chicago anarchists, it was "the fearful symbol of hunger, misery and death."
In the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nestor Makhno's anarchist forces were known collectively as the Black Army. They fought under a black flag with some success until they were crushed by the Red Army (see Black Guards). Emiliano Zapata, a Mexican revolutionary in the 1910s, used a black flag with a skull and crossbones and the Blessed Virgin Mary on it. The flag's slogan was "Tierra y Libertad" ("Land and Liberty"). In 1925, Japanese anarchists formed the Black Youth League, which had branches in the then-colonial Taiwan. In 1945, the group named their journal Kurohata ("Black Flag").
More recently, Parisian students carried black (and red) flags during the massive General Strike of May 1968. In the same year, these flags were seen at the American Students for a Democratic Society national convention. Also at about the same time, the British based journal Black Flag was started, and is still in existence today. Black flags remain a symbol of anarchists today.
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. Together they stand for "Anarchy is Order," the first part of a Proudhon quote. This character can be written as Unicode codepoint U+24B6: Ⓐ. In addition, the "@" sign or "(A)" can be used to quickly represent the circle-A on a computer.
The first recorded use of the A in a circle by anarchists was by the Federal Council of Spain of the International Workers Association. This was set up by Giuseppe Fanelli in 1868. It predates its adoption by anarchists as it was used as a symbol by others. According to George Woodcock, this symbol was not used by classical anarchists. In a series of photos of the Spanish Civil War taken by Gerda Taro a small A in a circle is visibly chalked on the helmet of a militiaman. There is no notation of the affiliation of the militiaman, but one can presume he is an Anarchist. The first documented use was by a small French group, Jeunesse Libertaire ("Libertarian Youth") in 1964. Circolo Sacco e Vanzetti, youth group from Milan, adopted it and in 1968 it became popular throughout Italy. From there it spread rapidly around the world.
As noted above, 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 by the Sex Pistols, though Crass were the first punk band to use the circle-A as well as being the first to espouse serious anarchist views. They had earlier discovered it – then merely an extremely esoteric political emblem – while traveling through France. With time the symbol, and "anarchy" as a vague synonym for rebelliousness, were incorporated into common punk imagery. This led to gradual appearances in mainstream culture over the course of several years, at times far removed from its political origin (described by Situationists as "recuperation"). These appearances typically connected it with anarchy and were intended as sensationalist marketing ploys, playing off of mainstream association of anarchy with chaos. This process mirrored the process of punk subculture coming into the mainstream, which occurred at approximately the same time.
Various schools within the anarchist movement have adopted their own flags. These flags are bisected diagonally with the right half in black for anarchy and the left half in a color representing each school's ideas. These color templates are also extended to five-pointed stars representing the same schools.
The red-and-black flag is the symbol of the anarcho-syndicalist and anarcho-communist movements. Black is the traditional color of anarchism, and red is the traditional color of socialism. The red-and-black flag combines the two colors in equal parts, with a simple diagonal split. Typically, the red section is placed on the top-left corner, with the black on the bottom-right corner of the flag. This symbolizes the co-existence of anarchist and socialist ideals within the anarcho-syndicalism movement, and to symbolize the more socialistic means of the movement leading to a more anarchistic end.
The black-and-yellow or black-and-gold flag is used by some who identify as anarcho-capitalists or market anarchists. The yellow is intended to symbolise gold, a commodity of exchange often used in marketplaces unrestricted by state intervention. The flag was first used in public in Colorado in 1963 at an event organised by Robert LeFevre.
Anarcho-communists and Anarcho capitalists both consider each others' philosophy to be incompatible with anarchism, as capitalists believe communism (such as the voluntary creation of communes, worker management of factories, etc.) is state oppression, and communists believe capitalism (such as rent, employment and private property) is state oppression. As a result, both groups claim the other is not really anarchism.
The black-and-green flag is used by green anarchists and anarcho-primitivists. It is generally taken to symbolize the green anarchists' idea of resistance against industrial civilization, and cooperation with nature. To anarcho-primitivists, it symbolizes the idea that the world should be completely natural and should "rewild."
The black-and-purple flag is used in association with anarcha-feminism, as is the black-and-pink flag, although the latter is more closely associated with queer anarchists, known as anarcho-queers . Unlike other bisected anarchist flags, it does not necessarily represent another form of anarchism, but is used to focus on opposition to the hierarchical patterns of heterosexism, sexism, transphobia, and patriarchy.
While the black flag and circle-A have been associated with anarchism as a whole, there are various other symbols used by certain groups of anarchists. See:
The Anarchist Black Cross organization's primary goal is to eliminate all prisons. It originated in Tsarist Russia as a support organization for political prisoners. Their symbol is a black cross, with the upwards-facing line being replaced with a raised fist, a symbol also associated with anarchism, defiance of authority, and personal empowerment (black power, youth power, women's liberation, American Indian Movement, International Socialist Organization, 'power to the people', etc...). The fist also represents union, as "many weak fingers can come together to create a strong fist".
The cross is a modification of the Red Cross emblem used by International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (founded 1863), the world's largest group of humanitarian organizations. Originally called the Anarchist Red Cross, the name was changed around 1920 to avoid confusion when the Red Cross started organizing relief for prisoners as well.
Black Rose Books is the name of the pre-eminent anarchist bookstore in Montreal, an anarchist infoshop in Portland, Oregon, and is now the name of a small press imprint headed by anarchist philosopher Dimitrios Roussopoulos. Black Rose was the title of a respected journal of anarchist ideas published in the Boston area during the 1970s, as well as the name of an anarchist lecture series addressed by notable anarchist and libertarian socialists (including Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky) into the 1990s.
The Jolly Roger as a black flag with skull and bones has recently gained a popularity among anarchists.
Some claim to use the Jolly Roger as a form of appreciation for the Pirate way of life in freedom and a lack of authority. Many Pirate ships were loosely democratic and most crew mates were working class fugitives from the highly repressive societies in which they were born. Anarchists may find affinity with the concept of pirate utopias, especially the island of legend, Libertatia. The Libertatian pirates have been identified as precursors to anarchists. Some Internet and techno-anarchists consider themselves pirates due to their free lifestyles in the world of technology and their defiance of copyright laws which is called "pirating". Several articles relating to the connection between anarchism and piracy can be found in the libcom.org library