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The circled A at 60: Birth of a symbol

We can thoroughly search all the archives, going back in time as far as possible and across all continents; however, reality is stubborn, and one fact remains unyielding: prior to April 1964, an A in a circle had never symbolised anarchy or anarchism. No poster, no graffiti, nor any trace whatsoever. This absence of evidence, however, does not conceal any mystery; rather, it simply reflects the straightforward fact that the circled A couldn’t exist before being conceived, which happened precisely in April 1964.

As of April 2024, sixty years have passed since the circled A was publicly presented as a proposed symbol of anarchism. While documents attesting to its origin will endure for a long time, the opportunity to provide first-hand testimony is rapidly diminishing. Therefore, I see no reason to delay any longer the compilation and dissemination of this information, although Marianne Enckell and Amedeo Bertolo covered the essential aspects in an article from 2002, which will be included as the third installment in this series.

The importance of specifying the origin of the A in a circle lies not so much in clarifying exactly where and by whom it was conceived, but rather in delimiting its meaning, as this explains its extraordinary dissemination. Nor is it about claiming for a clearly unwarranted paternity, because although the circled A was indeed introduced and proposed in April 1964, it only gained significance as a symbol through the collective efforts of thousands of anarchists worldwide, who adopted and incorporated it into various media, including walls, flags, banners, publications, and even tattoos. Consequently, the circled A has arguably become the most widespread political symbol in the world, epitomizing anarchism with unparalleled clarity.

The symbol is undeniably the result of extensive collective work, but before becoming a symbol, the process of its creation was also collective. Although a specific person [the author, Tomás Ibáñez. Ed.] initiated the proposal, that is, the idea of creating a simple and easy-to-draw symbol that, devoid of ties to any specific anarchist group or organization, could increase the visibility of anarchism through its presence in all graphic expressions of the anarchist movement, the acceptance of this proposal within the group of young libertarians in Paris was the outcome of extensive discussions and, thus, collective endeavour. The pursuit of the most suitable design and the final selection were likewise communal activities. And although one single person was responsible for drawing it on a stencil, both the production of the carefully mimeographed bulletin in a companion’s flat and its distribution continued to be collective activities.

Original circled A, by the Paris group of the Young Libertarians

Furthermore, the intent behind recounting the circumstances which surround its genesis is twofold: to debunk fanciful tales circulating about its origins, and to reaffirm the concept of anarchism embodied by the circled A. From its inception, the aim was for the symbol to be owned by no one so it could belong to all. And indeed, the will to design a symbol that did not refer to any existing anarchist organisation, acronym, or collective was decisive in ensuring its place within the broader anarchist sphere. Its independence from any ownership meant it could be claimed by anyone who resonated with its ethos.

Moreover, the circled A’s proposal aimed not to homogenize the diverse spectrum of anarchism but to celebrate its plurality while providing a shared reference point. It was necessary to ensure that what was common to all anarchist sensibilities could manifest itself without invocation of any centralising principle. We had to accept the dispersal of anarchist forms of organisation, but at the same time introduce a principle of confluence that would bring all these forms together. The circled A avoids any temptation to integrate anarchism under a single formula, ensuring that its diversity is reflected in the undifferentiated use of an icon that belongs equally to each of its streams and modalities.

Like the definition of archipelagos, which are described as a collection of islands united by what separates them, the circled A aimed to transform what separates the different streams of anarchism into a link between them, without erasing their specificity. The idea was to encourage a confederation of singularities united by a family resemblance and a common ground beneath the multiplicity of sensibilities and struggles. This recalls Gilles Deleuze’s beautiful phrase defining anarchy as “that strange singularity which can only be said of the multiple”.

Additionally, the symbol’s resonance with local grassroots initiatives and spontaneity eschews the principle of representation since a circled A does not represent anarchism and cannot claim to do so. Unlike an official stamp, it does not authenticate anything because no one has the legitimacy to authorise its use. The fact that anyone can use this icon freely means that it escapes any principle of representation and refers only to the responsibility of the user. This perhaps explains why the form of this symbol has diversified considerably, especially thanks to the punk movement, expressing individual creativity without ever losing its powerful association with anarchism.

One last consideration to place the origin of the circled A. Its creation happened in the context of intense militant activity in the 1960s to encourage the convergence of different sectors of anarchism. Thus, at the end of 1963, the Comité de Liaison des Jeunes Anarchistes (CLJA) and the Liaison des Étudiants Anarchistes (LEA) were created simultaneously in Paris. The CLJA did not claim to be a new anarchist organisation but simply a meeting point between members of different organisations, while the LEA brought together anarchist students belonging to various collectives. Transcending borders, this effort to bring together different fragments of anarchism culminated in a major European Meeting of Young Anarchists held in Paris in April 1966, with a very active presence of young libertarians from Milan, who adopted the circled A and widely spread it in Italy, bringing it out of the shadows where it had been kept by the lack of enthusiasm it had aroused, and thus projecting it onto the international scene.

original proposal for the circled-A

Here is a translation of the original April 1964 text:

… parallel to their work of non-formalist self-education, they aim to spread as widely as possible the fundamental ideas of anarchism.
The dissemination of issues related to libertarian emancipation requires the involvement of all individuals, the involvement of all individuals who advocate for an anarchist society as the sole path toward the complete realization of humanity.
Regardless of the different currents (philosophical nuances) or the different groups and organizations (practical nuances), no activist should object to any effort that contributes to the wider dissemination of propaganda, thereby enhancing its effectiveness and demonstrating the unity of Anarchism amidst its diverse conceptions and expressions.
Why do we propose this symbol that we PROPOSE TO THE ENTIRE ANARCHIST MOVEMENT and why this one in particular?
It stems from two primary motivations. Firstly, it aims to streamline and expedite the creation of wall inscriptions and posters. Secondly, it aims to enhance the visibility of the anarchist movement within society by incorporating a common element shared across all anarchist expressions in the public sphere.
Specifically, our objective was to minimize the time required to create wall inscriptions by avoiding the need to write a lengthy signature beneath our slogans. Additionally, we want to choice a symbol broad enough to be embraced and used by all anarchists.
We believe the proposed symbol best fulfils these criteria. By consistently pairing it with the term “anarchist,” it will trigger associations with anarchism in people’s minds (akin to the phenomenon of the Celtic cross linked with the Jeune Nation organization).
Moreover, this symbol serves a dual purpose for anarchist enhancement: firstly, by accelerating and facilitating the creation of anarchist messaging, and secondly, by appearing in graphic representations of the various anarchist groups, tendencies, and organizations.
By adopting the letter “A” (which bears no resemblance to JJLL), we aim to demonstrate our commitment to reciprocal solidarity and to pave the way for the widespread adoption of this efficient and practical approach.
Young Libertarians Paris Group

~ Tomás Ibáñez

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