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BookReview: Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide

Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide

Book by Ruth Kinna

As someone influenced by anarchist thought, I know embarrassingly little about the source texts of the movement, and its historical proponents: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon and the rest. What I know, I know mostly from the application of anarchist principles in online projects (the free software movement, wikipedia, and of course, most intimately, LibriVox), and their proponents, mainly the writings of Richard Stallman.

(For those wondering, anarchism is not about Molotov cocktails, but something like a belief in non-hierarchical organization of society, through collective actions of free individuals).

I was keen to get a primer to the historical movement and where it fits into society today. I corresponded briefly with Ruth Kinna in response to an interview with her on BBC, and decided subsequently to pick up her book.

“Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide” is designed mostly, I think, as a companion book to a university course on anarchism and the reading of the key texts of the movement. As such, it covers important figures of the past (those mentioned above, plus Ayn Rand and Emma Goldman, and many others), and more recent anarchist thinkers as well. The writing is clear and engaing, and much is packed into the slim volume, as befits a beginner’s guide. But the book has two major faults.

First, it fails to give an adequate account of how anarchism fit into the political consciousness as a serious alternative in the past. There was a time when anarchism was a popular movement among intellectuals and trade unionists, and Bakunin did battle with Marx for control of the “socialist” movement. Anarchists were considered a real threat, featuring in fiction (Conrad’s The Secret Agent text, audio), state executions (Sacco and Venzetti), and for a brief time running a country (CNT in Spain). Yet anarchism is now considered, mostly, the domain of a few crackpot hippies, the odd masked troublemaker, and, of course, a big population of hackers (more on that later). But it is not seen, I do not believe, as a major threat to established order, so much as a nuisance at WTO meetings, and good training for riot squads (who are often, much to the total unconcern of the population at large, more than happy to demonstrate the violence of the state anarchists wish to oppose). So, some questions: Why was anarchism such a powerful idea in the late 19th and early 20th century? Why did it fall by the wayside, in the face of other political doctrines (socialism, fascism, communism, and liberal democracy)? And, since it has not survived well as a political movement, why is it still important? Kinna’s book doesn’t address these questions adequately.

But the second, and most puzzling failure is that the book ignores completely the flourishing movement of anarchist-inspired activity online (except one aside mention of hacktivists, who jam corporate websites). The free software movement, and other online-enabled non-software projects such as wikipedia, distributed proofreaders, libirvox, and countless other open projects, as well as groups such as the anarchist librarians, all offer important examples of concrete implementations of anarchist ideals, implementations that actually work. When I first became interested in free software, back in 2004, I thought there must be many political philosophers studying this explosion, real-time, of anarchist-ish communities. My searches on Google Scholar turned up surprisingly few academics looking at this with any seriousness. The only philosopher I know of looking at these issues (surely there are more) is Dylan E. Wittkower, perhaps not coincidently, a LibriVox volunteer.

Those criticisms aside (and they are significant), Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide is concise and clear and an engaging read. It is a toe-dipping kind of book, one that, as a guide for beginners, provides a starting-point to explore the different movements and personalities within the somewhat chaotic ideology that is anarchism.

My rating: 2.5 stars

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