More than they could chew [Review of The Encyclopedia of Political Anarchy]

Encyclopedia of Political Anarchy, Kathlyn & Martin K Gay. ABC-Clio, 1999. ISBN 0-87436-982-7 £20.95.

An encyclopedia is a store of condensed knowledge. It should be interesting and informative, even if what you're reading is not what you opened it for. An encyclopedia of anarchism could be a great help to research.

This book is written by (and for) outsiders to anarchism, not in itself a bad thing. While they have some idea of what's going on - they can see through 'anarcho-capitalism' for instance - they haven't really got to grips with the subject. They quote Chomsky: 'No-one owns the term "anarchism." It is used for a wide range of different currents of thought and action, varying widely. There are many self-styled anarchists who insist, often with great passion, that theirs is the only right way and that others do not merit the term… The ratio of such material to constructive work is depressingly high.' (p8) which comes close to giving up on it meaning anything. Also, there's no appreciation that disagreement can be constructive, or the basis of constructive work. The authors are not entirely sure what anarchism is, or isn't, and so they follow an open door policy. This presumably explains why non-anarchists like Daniel De Leon, Blanqui and Gandhi get entries, and not even critical ones at that. There should be room in an anarchist encyclopedia to discuss other groups and ideas, but the first step should surely be to understand how they relate to anarchism?

There are factual errors, some of which are down to insufficient research. For example, they know that Camillo Berneri was killed by communists in the Barcelona 'Maydays' (1937), but they have him 'gunned down in the street' (p25) - not taken away and murdered by the secret police. Discussing the 'Maydays' elsewhere they tell us 'Workers took up arms … government and communist troops on one side and anarchists on the other, both shooting at [the] POUM'! They also repeat - without comment - the idiotic comment by a biographer of Orwell 'He was willing to die in a fight against fascism but not in some pointless squabble over left-wing loyalties.' (p158.) Finally, would you trust the research skills of people who seem unaware that there were two revolutions in Russia in 1917?

Beyond factual errors, there is the problem of interpretation. An entry under 'Anarchist Authors', if you don't just want to list the big names, could discuss how writers relate to the anarchist movement and it's press. Instead we get 'Some of the most well-known anarchist writers of the past published their theories in book form', a quarter of a page on Rousseau and a random selection of writers to prove that, yes, people have written books on anarchism (p8-9.)

Inevitably there are omissions, for example, nothing on South America, and no entry for the FAI or the Friends of Durruti. The discussion of the 'Platform' is buried under Dielo Trouda and situationism is also (some might say mercifully) absent. The English-language (and North American) bias is partly because they are outsiders, reliant on books and (heavily and obviously) the Internet. This shows in the geographic coverage. There are books on Chinese anarchism, so it gets an entry. Japan is covered by biographical pieces on Osugi Sakae and Kotoku Shusui. Korean anarchism isn't mentioned at all. Other entries have obviously been included because of a convenient website: is 'Rebels at Ruesta' the only anarchist conference worth mentioning? And far too much has been cut and pasted - and not properly analysed.

A charitable verdict would be that the authors have bitten off more than they could chew. Replacing the irrelevant entries with more on the history of anarchism would not help, because the whole project is lacking focus. There's no depth to the consideration of what anarchists want and how they try and have tried to get it.

So, if we don't trust the 'experts' (and why should we?) is there any hope for a useful encyclopedia - or even dictionary - of anarchism? There is the Daily Bleed's online anarchist encyclopedia, galleryindex.htm an impressive range of biographies (and some events), but this is more of an anarchist almanac, and only deals with ideas in passing.

I'd like to see something (unlikely to be a hardback book) which covers people, groups, events and ideas from a class-struggle anarchist perspective. Critical, but not engaging in snide point scoring, the idea would be to get insight into our history - and our practice. No doubt it would be a nightmare to organise. Entries would have to be short; it might even end up being a collection of quotes. But it might be useful. Anyone interested in this kind of project should write to the London address.