The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism by Ruth Kinna [Book review]

‘The aim of this book is to explain anarchist thought and practice’ it begins.(p7) ‘Being anarchist means challenging the status quo to realize egalitarian principles and foster co-operative, non-dominating behaviours.’(p2) This is a book devoted to ideas, rather than a history. I found it thought-provoking: some is good, in some places I disagree with the analysis and in others I think ‘oh dear me, don’t go there’. Which shows The Government of No One is probably not a bad reflection of the current state of the English-speaking anarchist movement.

I was pleased to see the varying forms of Spanish revolutionary collectives used in the discussion of anarchist decision-making (p195 on). Perhaps it could have done with a brief mention of the years spreading anarchist ideas beforehand? Also, I was glad Kinna doesn’t ‘believe that anarchism is endlessly porous’ (p8) and can ignore ‘anarcho-capitalist’ and ‘nationalist-anarchist’ foolishness. It’s good that Kinna emphasises the role of the Paris Commune and Chicago’s Haymarket Martyrs in the creation of the anarchist movement. I wonder if she might have poked a bit harder at media myths of ‘the anarchist beast’ (to use Nhat Hong’s phrase) – especially since she uses an ‘anarchist’ Bond villain in her introduction.

Violence (but only some of it)

Kinna discusses the actual origins of ‘propaganda by the deed’ in exemplary acts of revolt (think of the Matese band burning official paperwork). It did turn into a ‘wave of killings and high-profile assassinations’ (p116). But I felt to leave the story there comes close to repeating the polished narrative about anarchist political violence: ‘because of propaganda by the deed the anarchists killed x kings and y presidents’ (with the implication that there was a plan to get rid of the ruling class one by one). That ignores the fact that political violence was used by anarchists in different ways, at different times, and sometimes for different reasons. One of those reasons was revenge. Mike Davis says the massacre of the Paris communards is a ‘necessary condition’ for late-nineteenth century terrorism. [1] Gaetano Bresci killed a king. Would that have happened it Umberto hadn’t given a medal to a general for massacring working people in the street? Emile Henry did not say ‘there are no innocents’ (as it says on p119) but ‘No bourgeois can possibly be an innocent person.’ [2] I found it hard to see that as ‘a foretaste of Martin Luther King’s “there comes a time when silence is betrayal”.’ Kinna also talks about assassinations in Spain peaking in 1904-5 (p118 – a typo? Morral’s attempt on Alfonso XIII was 1906). That ignores the (later) Spanish anarchist response to employer terrorism (pistolerismo). If legitimate self-defence doesn’t count as ‘propaganda by the deed’, is that a reason to ignore it?

Class (and struggles about it)

Anarchists often talk at cross purposes about class. Economic relationships are connected to social identity, but are not the same thing: ‘what’s your relationship to the means of production?’ is a different question to ‘where’s my soup with croutons?’ [3]

Kinna talks about ‘class-struggle anarchism’ as a trend, but says ‘the origins of the term are difficult to pin down.’ (p136) Kinna is writing a ‘big picture’ book, and can’t be expected to dig up details like this. Back in 1974, Black Flag said that the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists ‘remains within the same concept of class struggle anarchism as we do’. [4] But the need to distinguish between revolutionary and ‘liberal’ currents of anarchism can be seen earlier, in the Black Flag statement issued in 1968. [5] In my opinion the term was increasingly used by militants in the UK from the 1980s and ’90s onwards. The umbrella term allowed anarcho-syndicalists, anarchist communists and comrades like Class War to work together. It was also meant to distinguish them from the ‘liberalism’ of Freedom Press more than from (as Kinna says) the ‘feminist, ecological and other movements perceived to sideline class in their analysis of oppression.’ (p136)

Part of the UK anarchist movement completely rejected class analysis (or rather, saw nothing in the working class but a challenge to their own status). Tony Gibson sneered at the defeated National Union of Mineworkers as ‘extra-thick thickies.’ [6] In the 1960s Freedom (and Anarchy magazine in its first series) promoted a ‘reinvented’ form of anarchism which saw no chance of revolution (because of the atom bomb), had no interest in the working class (because of the welfare state) and saw the role of the intellectual as perpetual protest. [7] Much of the ‘new’ academic anarchism seems to have embraced and built on this strand of ‘liberal’ anarchism. I would have liked to have seen a little more critical analysis of it, even on its own terms. If we have left behind the days of ‘proletarian anarchist catastrophism’ (p146 – I can’t tell if Kinna is only quoting or endorsing the sentiment) then what does success look like? To update our analysis of class as capitalism evolves makes sense. But does an anarchism with no class analysis help much now? The problem of how to relate to the anarchists of the past and their ideas reminded me of Spencer Sunshine’s comments on recent (post-1960) anarchist thought in the United States:
‘The problem with incorporating hot takes from other political traditions into an anarchist framework is they’re usually based in firmly authoritarian ontologies and epistemologies [ideas about being and knowing] […] Our first instinct should be to ask “how have anarchists and other libertarian socialists approached this question in the past?” Because they are the ones who insisted that their formulations kept within an internally consistent existing framework that had a dual commitment to freedom and justice.’ [8]

People

Kinna presents various charts which classify anarchist ideas: ‘Commitments to revolutionary and evolutionary principles complicate anarchist organizationist and anti-organizationist distinctions.’ (p128) and ‘Subdivisions created by the commitment to non-violence in social anarchist and individualist groups.’ (p147) These captions make them sound more complicated than they are, but I found them a bit too two-dimensional. I feel there’s a human dimension missing here. What about people’s lives and actions, as well as their theories, the ‘simple humanity’ that Albert Meltzer experienced in his dealings with the Spanish Resistance? [9] That said, I enjoyed the large section of biographies and was glad to see some familiar faces. But where are Luigi Galleani, Sam and Esther Dolgoff or Miguel Garcia? I could name many more; but Kinna is not trying to be comprehensive here.

The Government of No One is published by Penguin Books, which guarantees it will be widely read. It is much less self-serving and hostile to class-struggle anarchism than George Woodcock’s Anarchism (first edition: ‘the anarchist movement is dead’. Second edition: ‘my book brought anarchism back to life, but only as an idea.’) [10] It gives an up-to-date ‘big picture’ view of anarchist trends. I don’t agree with all of it, nor think it will be the last word on the subject. But see what you think.

Notes

1, ‘Mike Davis talks about the “Heroes of Hell”’ Radical History Review, Issue 85, Winter 2003 also at https://slackbastard.anarchobase.com/?p=26944
2,  Four patients of Dr. Deibler by J.C. Longoni p160
3,  Sean Mason’s slag-off of middle class CND members, Bash the Rich by Ian Bone p137
4, ‘Wildcat: New paper, established tendency’ Black Flag, v3, n14 (October 1974) p10
5,  https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/5x6bxp
6, ‘What the anarchist movement has taught me’ in Freedom: A hundred years (1986) p42
7,  See (among others) John Pilgrim ‘Salvation by the working class: is it an outmoded myth?’ Anarchy 68, October 1966 p289-300; Albert Meltzer ‘Anarchism and the working class: a reply’ Anarchy 72, February 1967 p39-49
8,  Spencer Sunshine Video: ‘Introductory Remarks’ at the Yiddish Anarchism Conference, January 20, 2019 via https://yivo.org/Video
9,  Albert Meltzer: 1920-1996 in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 6, September, 1996 https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/g4f5mw
10, See reviews by Sam Dolgoff (1963) and Frank Mintz, (1978) at https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/sj3vsm

The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism by Ruth Kinna
Penguin books, 2019. £20 ISBN 9780241396551