Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A Most Dangerous Library: My Top 10 Books on Anarchism

I am an anarchist.

It feels good to say. No qualifications; no hesitation.

I am not a liberal with a cooler fashion sense. 

I am not a progressive who needs to cultivate more discipline and patience.

I am not a libertarian with a better group dynamic.

I am not a libertarian socialist. Well, I am, but I sometimes think that’s the term used by anarchists who are somewhat embarrassed to call themselves anarchists.

And I’m sure as hell not trying to get the vote out for Bernie Sanders…

Nope. I’m an anarchist, and happy to be known as such.

I became an anarchist in the mid-90s and nothing that has happened in the intervening years- elections, wars, movements, developments- has ever led me to question that decision. I was drawn to its philosophical underpinnings- its critique, not of those in power, but of power itself; its unwavering dedication to human freedom; its belief in the social component to history; it’s convinced stance that the most effective path to social transformation is direct action.

I’m also a voracious reader- who spent years working in a used bookshop- and I’ve devoured tons of books on politics, faith, culture, and social issues.

With that in mind, I wanted to go through my stacks and compile a list of my top 10 books about anarchism- its theory, history, action.

These are the books that truly transformed my thinking- and continue to do so. These ideas, arguments, methods, and experiences are worth studying, worth preserving, and much of it is worth carrying forward.

If you’re new to the anarchist movement, I’d really encourage you to dive in and find yourself in history.

If you’re only acquainted with one facet of anarchism (Dorothy Day, the IWW, or whatever), dig in and discover the richness and variety of anarchist thought.

If you’ve been an anarchist for years, grab some of these texts for an endless source of quotes in response to the numbing static of what passes for political debate now…

And if you’re an anarchist with a wicked sense of humour, consider this a wonderful list of potential stocking-stuffers for friends and relatives who won’t shut up about Trump, Carson, Hillary, or Bernie…

They’re all available for sale online; I checked. So here we go…

No Gods No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism, Vols. 1 &2, Daniel Guérin, ed.

These two volumes are important treasure troves of some of the most important writing on anarchism from the movement’s most influential century, beginning with Max Stirner in the 1840s. Guérin’s work here is a labour of love; much of what’s here was not available in English before, or only sporadically and in limited distribution. Generous excerpts of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Voline, Makhno, and the experiences of the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War make them absolutely indispensable to any real understanding of anarchism as a philosophy and a course of action. I remember sitting on my top bunk in a hostel in Barcelona in 2000, feverishly underlining long passages. The anti-globalization was in full force, and the texts from these books leapt off the pages, crackling with intensity. They are to anarchism what the Bible is to Christians and the first Ramones album is to punks. Buy these books…

Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, Peter Marshall

Well-researched and eminently readable, Marshall gives us a near-flawless one-volume examination of  anarchism with global and historical sweep, going back through human history to libertarian thought found in Taoism, Buddhism, Greek philosophy, ancient Christianity, the Middle Ages, on onward to the Enlightenment. He includes commentary on all the prominent anarchist thinkers and documents the history of modern anarchist movements across the world. If conservative or liberal friends ever accuse you of naivety, shallowness, or a lack of historical focus, send them to this book.

Social Anarchism, Giovanni Baldelli

Human society needs to be organized to function, and anarchism, contrary to lazy stereotypes, is deeply concerned with organization, and has detailed ideas about how to do it.. What separates anarchism from most other forms of libertarian thought is its social component.  Anarchism’s primary criticism of hierarchical capitalism is that it is fundamentally unjust, and anarchists firmly hold that a better way is possible. Baldelli, who presided over the International Anarchist Congress in London in 1958 and as secretary of the International Anarchist Commission, begins to put practical meat on the theoretical bones, fleshing out the anarchist vision of social organization. He also gives inspirational suggestions of the role each committed individual can make to the common good. An Intelligent and thought-provoking read.

Anarchism: Arguments For and Against, Albert Meltzer

At only 71 pages, this is almost a pamphlet, but it’s a great introduction to the basics of anarchist thought by answering the criticisms brought against it by liberals, Marxists, Social Democrats, the far right, and the average individual. A great resource, small enough and inexpensive enough to buy in bulk and give away!

The Essential Works of Anarchism, Marshall S. Shatz, ed.

Published in 1971, this great small paperback provides generous excerpts of major anarchist thinkers (Proudhon, Bakunin, Tolstoy, Emma Goldman and Rudolf Rocker are all present) as well as contributions from the heady days of 1968 and following, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Dutch Kabouters.

The Anarchist Reader, George Woodcock, ed.

A similar exercise to Shatz’s work, this paperback is similarly packed with great works from across the anarchist spectrum, but has the benefit of being thematically organized (the basic stance, the basic criticisms, the contradictions with the Marxists, the criticism of education systems, etc.). Woodcock cares deeply for his subject and making sure it is well represented.

Anarchism, George Woodcock

Anarchism arose from historical conditions, and Canadian scholar and biographer George Woodcock details the development of anarchism through the lives of the men who were its greatest proponents as well as through interesting details of the nature of the societies in which they lived, worked, and struggled. Detailed, scholarly, and fascinating to read, the book is a classic.

 Anarchist Organization: The History of the FAI, Juan Gómez Casas

Ever been explaining your anarchism to an average citizen and had them confusedly and condescending say, ‘But how would that work?’ Actually, there was a time when millions of workers were anarchists, getting on with running their trade unions and industrial committees. These were the anarcho-syndicalists, who saw the trade union as the basis for revolutionary action. Nowhere was the movement stronger than in Spain, and this book chronicles the history of the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI), the unique organization of Spanish anarchist groups. It’s not a snappy page-turner; it’s a dense and somewhat dull work.  Nevertheless, it’s a powerful history. These were the anarchists who ran Barcelona and other centres of Spanish industry, keeping the factories humming, keeping public transportation on time, all the while fighting a brutal civil war with the fascist armies trying to bring down the Spanish Republic and Stalinist communists determined to do away with them from within. That history alone makes this an important work, and worth giving a good going over.

 In Defense of Anarchism, Robert Paul Wolff

This is another very short work (113 pages), and its size gives no indication of how dense it is and how much concentration it takes to read. The book is pure philosophy, laying out, in a very specifically academic way, a logical underpinning for anarchism.  As such, it is primarily concerned with teasing out the concepts of authority and autonomy, the strengths and weaknesses of democracy in all its forms (direct, representative, and majoritarian), and the legitimacy of the state. Most people will not find this an easy read by any means- I have a PhD in contextual theology and had to re-read several pages more than once- but it rewards the readers efforts by laying the groundwork for a solid, intellectually-sound embrace of anarchism, which is to be preferred to the sort that comes from seeing V For Vendetta twice and thinking it’s really cool…

Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs? Anarchy in Action Around the World, Francis Dupuis-Déri

Anarchism will never be just about doctrine and theory; action remains its beating heart. But what action should be pursued? Who should make those decisions, and how should they be made? This book goes to the heart of those questions with a detailed examination of the Black Bloc tactic. It’s a fascinating look at a challenging subject. Dupuis-Déri gives ample space for Black Bloc participants to speak for themselves, discuss their activities, and the motivations behind them. The media caricatures of mindless thugs masquerading as demonstrators drops away quickly, revealing very thoughtful arguments (there’s a lot of sociology degrees in these crowds) and conscientious actions (although most often associated with direct action against corporate property and battling cops, Black Blockers very often simply march with other demonstrators, run first aid stations, etc.).

Beyond that, Dupuis-Déri’s work explores the nature of violence (is breaking a Starbuck’s window a ‘violent’ act, equal to the act of forcing a coffee grower to live in poverty to keep coffee prices artificially low?) and the differences between public, private, and personal property- extremely important distinctions which deserve to be recognized as such. Most importantly, he emphasizes again and again that Black Bloc is a tactic, not a group or a movement. That tactic deserves to be discussed intelligently, which he eminently does. 

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