Saturday, November 09, 2013

What is Anarchism: An Introduction

     By Donald Rooum, Freedom Press, London 1993 ISBN 0 900384 66 2

     It has been many years since I have read a non-historical introduction to anarchism. There are a great number of them, and to my mind they should live up to certain criteria. One is that they should be neither too short, "leafletly", nor so long and encyclopedic that they risk boring the casual reader. They should also present a wide enough vision of the many facets of the ideology without becoming bogs down in trivia. They should have a number of "hooks" to catch the interest of a varied audience.

     They should, of course, be well written and attractively laid out, not bowing to the gods of illiteracy and mess that periodically become popular amongst a minority who claim the anarchist label. Coherence is a must, a task made easier by excluding some of the more exotic blooms that nestle under the anarchist umbrella. Any introduction should be just historical enough, and attempt to place the basic ideas within a chronological narrative.

     They should both answer time-honoured objections to anarchism and present a vision of a future society that could be attractive to a reasonable person. A good introduction should be free of both trendy academic jargon and also of rhetorical overkill. Both faults repel people who are outside of closed social circles.

     How does this slim volume measure up ? First of all it should be mentioned that Rooum is more of a collator than an author. His contributions consist of an introduction and one essay on 'Selfishness and Benevolence'. He has chosen to fill the bulk of the book with excerpts from historical anarchists of note: Kropotkin, Malatesta, Rudolf Rocker, Alexander Berkman, Colin Ward and others. Despite this the book is definitely not an attempt to put anarchism in an historical context. In his fourfold division after the Introduction the author tries to select brief pieces that are, in his opinion, relative to the public presentation of the ideology. The four chapters are 'Anarchist Approaches to Anarchism', 'Anarchism and Violence', 'Arguments For Government Answered' and 'The Relevance of Anarchism'.

     This approach may or may not be useful. The selections "generally" are pertinent to the headings, and I'm sure that Rooum's long career as a publicist for anarchism has made him aware of some of the questions that repeatedly reoccur. What the author misses, however, by avoiding an historical approach is probably the greatest argument for the possibility of anarchism, an objection that definitely comes up again and again from many different quarters. This is that anarchist societies have existed, albeit briefly, in modern times in both Ukraine and Spain. Simply put, that which has or does exist is not "impossible".

     Unfortunately Rooum ignores what the vast bulk of what effective anarchism has been in practice - anarchosyndicalism. It is notable that the only essay by a syndicalist, 'Socialism and Freedom' by Rudolf Rocker, has little or nothing to do with syndicalism. It is a criticism of the Leninist conception of socialism rather than a presentation of an anarchist alternative. Flogging the corpse of the commies is something of a motherhood issue in our times. It is also significant that the only reference to the syndicalist side of anarchism is a short segment in the Introduction where Rooum is basically critical of the idea.

     The lack of a historical narrative detracts from both the utility and the coherence of the book/pamphlet. As mentioned the excerpts vary in how relevant they are to the purposes of the author/editor. How does the book measure up as simply a presentation of ideas and ideology ? Generally not so bad. Anarchism is such a diverse trend that it is naturally hard to find ways of fitting it into a popular presentation. The author, however, makes a good go of it in elucidating the "bare bones" of the tradition on which pretty well all anarchists agree. Neither too short nor too long. He tries to dispel some of the more common popular misconceptions about the movement. He is generally successful in this, and his language is refreshingly free of jargon and purple prose. He avoids the all-too-common lefty fault of "argument by insult". The presentation is properly modest and reasonable. In general the items quoted are well written and add to the points that Rooum wishes to make.

     A caveat- Rooum is obviously of the "permanent protest" school of anarchism. He does, however, at least give rather catholic mention to other trends in anarchism that are more "optimistic". He is quite realistic and honest about the strength, or lack thereof, of anarchism in his own place and time. His situation in late 20th century Britain may both explain and excuse his slighting of the more effective forms that anarchism has taken elsewhere and "elsewhen".

     Is this a useful introduction to anarchism ? In many ways yes. It certainly helps to clear up many of the myths that have accumulated in both the public and the academic mind. It does this in an admirably popular, clear manner. Rooum is a good example of what Orwell thought that political writing should be like. Because of its limited scope, however, it could not be used as "The Introduction". All that being said one should congratulate the author for a tightly argued and accessible presentation of at least one of the aspects of modern anarchism. The book, however, is not the Holy Grail of an accessible intro to the total neophyte. BUT is a good supplement to other efforts and well worth reading.

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