Thursday, March 24, 2011

GUEST POST A beginner's guide to anarchism

Ruth Kinna is the author of A Beginner's Guide to Anarchism (Oneworld Publications, 2009).

Anarchism is often said to have a sporadic history: defeat in Spain in 1939 marks the end of the international movement which had its origins in the First International; 1968 was a year of resurgence, sparked by student protest and the rise of the new left; and the Battle for Seattle in 1999, the global justice movement’s coming out party, was anarchism’s most recent manifestation.

Though each wave generates a good deal of enthusiasm and some affection, a negative image of the anarchist still prevails. The alter-globalisation movement and organisations like Reclaim the Streets encouraged an association with party-going carnival "fluffies," but the bearded, bomb-throwing terrorist remains a powerful trope (witness the character "V" in V for Vendetta), and the balaclava of urban youth, the punk and the eco-warrior are modern takes on it - search for ‘anarchist’ on Google image search and see what appears.

In different ways, each speaks to the suspicion and unease that the idea of "anarchy" stirs. Anarchism might be interesting and, compared to other currents of radical and socialist thought, an attractive "libertarian" alternative, but anarchism is still linked with violence, utopianism and rebellion in equal measure. Do either graffiti artists or their audiences realise that the circle scrawled around the A is actually an O and that the symbol stands for "anarchy is order"?

The answer is probably very few and too many still confuse ‘anarchy’ with the Hobbesian mess that anarchists associate with the state. How, then, should anarchism be understood and what do its recent manifestations have to do with the politics of Peter Kropotkin, Michael Bakunin or P.-J. Proudhon, to name three of the anarchist movements leading thinkers?

The Beginner’s Guide was written with a number of aims in mind: to provide an accessible account of anarchist politics; to highlight the diversity of the movement and unpack some of the myths attached to it. As importantly, it has been designed to introduce anarchist ideas without adopting prescriptive definitions. In keeping with the diversity at the heart of anarchist politics, it neither presents a check-list of core beliefs nor a supposed set of essential theoretical assumptions (for example, an "anarchist conception of human nature").

Anarchism is linked to anti-statism, but this can be and is understood in myriad ways: in relation to capitalism, as a form of anti-authoritarianism, as a rejection of institutionalised power, as a set of social relations, a combination of any of these, and so on.

The first chapter of the book discusses three different approaches to anarchism: the canonical, which identifies the founding fathers and key thinkers; the categorical - an approach which groups anarchists into schools (for example "philosophical", "communist", "individualist") - and which spawned a movement that demands ‘anarchism without adjectives’; and the historical, which traces the emergence of the political and labour movements which sprang up across the world in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries.

Each has something to tell us about anarchism, but it is through an appreciation of their interrelationship that we learn the most about the perennial concerns of self-identifying anarchists and the ways in which these concerns translate into theory, into ideas about political practice and organisational ideals. This is a rich tradition of political thought and action, innovative, passionate and creative, and it embraces late, great revolutionaries like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, the Christian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy and contemporary activists like Bob Black and John Zerzan. Class struggle anarchists, anarcha-feminists, anti-civilisation anarchists are all part of the mix.

Subsequent chapters focus on particular themes: conceptions of the state; ideas of anarchy and approaches to action. The rejection of centralised power is a strong theme in anarchist writing, but so too is the state’s hypnotic authority which leads us to adopt roles that militate against individual reflection and conscience. In the state, Fredy Perlman argued, we wear masks; and even if we agree with the decisions that we are charged to take, we are infantalised by Leviathan and the processes which structure daily life.

The book explores a number of ideas of anarchy. Amongst these is the practical utopianism of Colin Ward and Paul Goodman, two inventive, creative subversives whose reflections on education, squatting, urban design, gardening and a whole host of other issues continues to inspire community-action groups. Ward, in particular, took his lead from Kropotkin, whose critique of the state (in The State its Historic Role and Mutual Aid) pointed to the possibilities of co-operation, local initiative and the development of non-hierarchical organisations. Not quite the big society. Practical anarchy not only by-passes government, it also develops its own moral rules and it challenges market-capitalism.

The anarchists’ understanding of the intimate relationship between ends and means is one of the themes of the final chapter. This has led both to a principled rejection of parliamentary politics and the aspiration to take power in the state – for benevolent or other purposes.

Anarchists stand against vanguardism. They are advocates of direct action, though they understand this in a variety of ways and adopt very different attitudes to questions of violence, disobedience and protest. Because they reject institutional politics, anarchists are often dismissed as hopeless idealists. Anyone prepared to engage with the order that anarchists see at the heart of anarchy will find this a strange reversal.

If you want to find out more, the book is available at Housemans online shop.

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