A Treat to Read [Review of Anarchism, Séan M. Sheehan]

Anarchism, Séan M. Sheehan. Reaktion Books, London, 2003. ISBN 1-86189-169-5. £12.95.

I admit I had my doubts when I first saw this: he's written about Wittgenstein and he chucks phrases like 'Kantian dualism' (p61) around. Still, introductions to anarchism are thin on the ground, so a new one's worth looking at. Thankfully, it's not an exercise in academic posturing or the flipside, politics played for a laugh.

Sheehan starts, understandably enough (isn't this why the book's coming out?) with Seattle putting anarchism back into the news and cuts straight to the anarchist critique of the state, and the varied tendencies this has given rise to. The heavy philosophy starts in chapter 3, devoted to Marx and Nietzsche. He uses them as emblems of the twin anarchist demands - equality and liberty. Looking at what they wrote, Sheehan is able to make a coherent explanation of their ideas, rather than leaving them significant but unread, interpreted by 'experts'. Apparently Marxism (meaning its anti-capitalist part, rather than Leninism) has an appointment with anarchism - though I'd rather concentrate on the idea of class struggle which Marx expressed (not created) and leave the whole prophet thing alone.

The practice of anarchism is covered, not exhaustively but quite widely: Winstanley, Berkman and Goldman, Kronstadt, Makhno, the Spanish revolution, Angry Brigade, Class War and the Zapatistas. All this could have been done by rote, repeating the same errors and the same conclusions of a dreary procession of mumbling historians. But - Bakunin's beard be praised! - it's not. He's put the effort into finding out about the history of anarchism, and he also has the intelligence to asses it. He's rightly suspicious, for example, of Hobsbawm's dismissal of the Spanish anarchists as 'passionate romantics, daredevil bandits' (p97). The history of anarchism is the history of the fight for liberation: Sheehan makes it as interesting as it should be. He also covers some of the cultural output of anarchism, like the influence of (the non-anarchist) Reich and the fiction of Ursula LeGuin. This is a useful examination of the spirit of revolt alongside the earlier more concrete stuff.

Concluding, he comes full circle back to the anti-capitalist movement, where tension is the keyword, between Marx and Nietzsche as well as between where we are and where we want to be (p158). Tension is a good word, one he's not alone is using, a recognition that you can't ever sit back and go, OK, well that's over, we're all free and enlightened now.

I'm personally not sure that 'traditional' anarchism has been 'left behind' for something else, or that every revolution was about 'capturing political power' (p155). I don't think I'd use film examples so much (is Land and Liberty more real to people than the facts about the Spanish revolution?) but by and large they work. Nor do I think affinity groups suddenly appeared in Spain in the 30s, but as you can see, the quibbles are getting smaller and smaller. I'd recommend that everyone read this book, and get other people to read it, because it's interesting as well as inspirational. As an introduction to the history and ideas of anarchism, it'll give you a head start. Looking out at the here and now, it reminds us we have a world to win.