Posted by: yannaungoak | January 20, 2010

(Book Review) Anarchism – A Very Short Introduction

AnarchismI was going through my external hard drive the other day when I found that I had a huge collection of PDFs of these wonderful “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press. They’re small enough that even a slow reader like me can read them in two or three hours, and the best thing is, they have them on every topic known to man!

So I thought I’d read a couple every week and write about them on my blog, to give it some pretense of sophistication.

We start off this week with the one on Anarchism, written by Colin Ward, who’s a really old dude (born in ’24) who’s written dozens of books on anarchism. The guy doesn’t seem to be a university-tenured academic, but I think he’s been a scholar in the field for more than half a century so I guess he knows what he’s talking about.

My own prior knowledge of anarchism is minimal. I’ve listened to Chomsky rave about anarcho-syndicalism in his lectures, and I know a bit about Bakunin, mainly as one of Marx‘s intellectual opponents (in my opinion, he’s a much more sensible kind of a radical than Marx could ever be). But the thing that really interested me was the history of the anarchist communities during the Spanish Civil War. The thing is, some of the communes/unions that formed during that pre-WWII period still survived today in some form or another. Mere survival of a fringe political group is nothing impressive of course, but some, such as the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation (MCC) is anything but an irrelevant fringe political group. Today, it is the world’s largest worker’s cooperative and is a conglomerate of financial, manufacturing and retail companies that accounts for 3.8% of the GDP of the Basque Country. I don’t know enough about them to make a sound judgment as to their relevance (maybe they are heavily subsidized), but I sure hope to find out more in the future.

Anyways, let’s get on with the book itself. It starts off with an overview of the different strands of anarchism, ranging from collectivist anarchism and individualist anarchism, to green anarchism and anarcha-feminism. It also introduces figures like Bakunin, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s dad, and this other Russian guy called Kropotkin. Apparently Kropotkin is one of the most important intellectual fathers of anarchism, who went from being a geographer to someone who was obsessed with coming up with ideas about how to rearrange society. Unlike the more successful Marxists, these early anarchists in general seem to have been a lot more interested in talking about how  their alternative society will actually function instead of just ranting about capitalism and calling for revolution.

As for revolutions, anarchists seem to have had a hand in quite a number of them as well. The popular image of the anarchist is of course the guy protesting on the streets, with a bandanna covering his face, flinging a Molotov cocktail. However, there hasn’t been many examples of successful real world anarchist revolutions, except for those that appeared in Spain during the civil war. Unlike the similarly radical but much more autocratic Marxists, anarchists believe that any measure of unjustified authority is hostile to their movement. It’s little wonder why they have not had many successful or long-lasting revolutions. People don’t like doing things until they are forced to.

According to Kropotkin, anarchism is

a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements, concluded between various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.

I guess its based on a fundamental distrust of authority, and a fundamental optimism in the ability of people to behave in a civilized manner without any need for coercion. Also, it’s not a type of government per se, but rather a set of ideas, a point the author repeatedly makes in the book.

The author claims (he does a lot of “claiming”, as we will see) that all sorts of people from the Anabaptists to supporters of Oliver Cromwell to Mahatma Gandhi were influenced by anarchist ideas. Anarchism, it seems, is more like a set of broad-based beliefs about how society ought to be structured rather than a concrete social or philosophical theory. It’s the common strand of thought behind the ideas of religious reformers, organizers of civil society, small business owners, paeceniks, punks, and revolutionaries.

A lot of the book consists of something along the lines of, “Oh, you know that really cool thing that we take for granted in modern society? Like how teachers don’t smack you anymore and how you don’t have to dress formally for your office job on casual Fridays? Yeah, anarchists were the first people to come up with those ideas! Serious!”. Apparently anarchists deserve credit for ideas ranging from Britain’s National Health Service, to the practice of serving probation instead of doing time in prison, to urban agriculture, to the idea that legalizing drugs might actually reduce drug abuse.

It does seem somewhat like a series of cases in which the author tries to put a positive spin on anarchism’s not-so-impressive list of achievements by claiming credit for various niceties of modern society. However, I do think he does have a point or two about how certain aspects of society have steadily progressed towards the anarchist ideal, specifically in education.

I remember when I first went to government school in Myanmar when I was about six years old. It was terrifying. Our class of fifty or so first graders were made to sit at our desks for the entire day, copying down what the teacher wrote on the board. Anyone falling out of line, fidgeting too much, or playing with the kid next to them quickly gets smacked by the teacher. This was in Myanmar the early 1990’s, or it could have very well been in the US in the 1890’s. This of course, is a far cry from any kind of first grade classroom that you can find today in a developed country. The image of the teacher as the singular figure of authority in the classroom has eroded in the previous century. Also, all the freedom in subject and curriculum choice afforded to schools and students have made learning a much more voluntary affair. I don’t think it is too difficult to imagine a time when a school is more of a

community center with doors open twelve hours a day, seven days a week, where anybody can wander in and out of the library, workshops, sports center, self-service store, and bar. In a hundred years time the compulsory attendance laws for children to go to school may have gone the same way as the compulsory laws for attendance at church

as one anarchist had envisioned. Especially since education is becoming increasingly digitized. A lot of world class universities are offering their entire curricula and lectures online for free, ebook readers are about to become ubiquitous, and Wikipedia and the free-software movement are probably the most successful anarchist revolutions that the world has ever seen. Today, we can learn whatever we want whenever we want (i.e. geek out), for free. I am in full agreement with another quote from the book: “The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness”. Take that! Nasty cane-wielding first grade teachers!

The rest of the book does cover a bit more of the political and economic aspects of anarchism, but they do not get as thorough a treatment as I would like. The author seems to like to treat anarchism as a social movement in its fullest sense, and not just narrowly focused on politics and economics.

In politics the big thing is of course the dismantling of the state, and likewise it’s associated modern day form, the nation-state. The author points out that anarchism seems to work pretty well across nation-states. One country has no legal jurisdiction over what happens in another, and has no authority to coerce anybody who isn’t in its borders, and yet international mail arrives on time; planes, cars, and ships travel from port to port with no hassle, all because of voluntary agreements between nation-states. So, the argument goes, why not break the nation-states themselves down into smaller units, where people are attached only to the cultural affinity of their home regions, and have no necessary affiliation with a vast, imagined, nation under the iron will of its state. Of course the counter-arguments to this would constitute a book unto itself, and this is just a “Very Short Introduction”. Understandably, we do not get a long debate on the issue.

I’m even less satisfied with the treatment of economics, primarily with the whole entire branch of political-economic theory influenced by anarchism: free-market libertarianism. The term libertarianism is used by both people from the extreme left and the extreme right, both of them being hostile to authority and incredibly partial to freedom and liberty. The author of the book is politically left-winged, and seems dismissive of the free-market variant of anarchism. In the chapter on “individualist” conceptions of anarchism, he drops a few names like Friedrich Hayek and Murray Rothbard but in the end denounces them as “academics rather then social activists, … their inventiveness seems to be limited to providing an ideology for untrammeled market capitalism”.

I did enjoy reading the book despite it’s shortcomings, and did develop an appreciation for anarchism not just as the naive and impossibly idealistic political ideology preached by humanities professors and Molotov flinging protesters, but rather something that has been an undercurrent in society for a long time. All of us taking part in a quiet anarchist revolution against authority that has been brewing for centuries, every time we look up something in Wikipedia.



  1. I get the point that education has become more open because of the internet but I still can’t imagine a system where people can just come in and out of schools at their will (like going to church or library). Maybe I’m old fashion. I still think that there are something you learn from your teacher that you don’t learn just from reading books.
    I am really tempted by the blurring of nation lines. I know it’s highly impractical (for now) but I find the idea of a global unit, instead of imagined nations, very attractive. Considering that we are facing problems that are global (economy/climate/human rights), maybe it will be more fruitful to think of the world as one unit.

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