Thoughts on anarchism, academia and history

I joined the anarchist movement in the 1980s. I’ve read a lot of anarchist books, pamphlets and papers, and a lot of history books since then. Given that I want to know everything, why do I find so much of the “new academic anarchism” alien and alienating? I’ve lost a lot of sleep trying to understand both the trend and my reaction to it.

For example, it always gets my goat to read the term “classical anarchism”. It strikes me as a patronising putdown of the anarchist movement: I hear it as “In the Olden Days classical anarchists wore togas and talked Latin. They liked barricades (which is Latin for ‘barbecue’). Eventually they all moved to Latin America.” Actually, it’s a term used by academics arguing about Kropotkin’s philosophical underpinnings and their significance (and sometimes to write off class struggle anarchism).

Radical bookshops were my introduction to anarchism. I’m fairly sure I bought a collection of Ricardo Flores Magon’s writings before I picked up Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a revolutionist. I don’t think that’s significant: there was so little available on anarchism that you read nearly anything that came your way. Flores Magon and Kropotkin are “big names” but I also remember getting a copy of the Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review with Richard Warren’s cartoons in. I still think they’re great. But I’m not sure all our “new anarchaeologists” would even get the point. Obviously “What use is history?” and “Why does academic writing sound so strange?” aren’t new questions. But now, I feel we’re often talking at cross-purposes both about what anarchism is and how to understand it. Books are bread and butter to academics (and anarchists!) but I worry about the breezy confidence that one book by Kropotkin can stand in for the endless discussions, humour (and self-mockery), challenges and celebrations that make up anarchism.

I can’t say that anarchism in the 1980s was an especially happy family. Even within class struggle anarchism there were some significant political and tactical differences (let alone the liberals we felt had “wandered away” completely). I remember a line to the effect (and I’m not going to look up the reference) that if so-and-so couldn’t spell Durruti then you shouldn’t take their analysis of the Spanish anarchist movement seriously. That taught me the value of proofreading!

In a social movement you learn common assumptions. Militancy was a voluntary commitment. The movement was amateur in the sense of non-professional (which doesn’t mean amateurish) and largely anonymous. Making a name for yourself was for the brave or the unfortunate. We didn’t think propaganda was a dirty word but were interested in being understood by (other) working class people. Anarchist history was a proof to them as well as ourselves that things could be different. Coming from a background like that, I find the idea of only writing for people with PhDs (or of writing a PhD about your affinity group) a little odd.

I know movements evolve, but I sometimes feel that offers to “reinvent” or “update” anarchism don’t offer anything new (I don’t think Tolstoy is new!) but something the authors personally feel more comfortable with. That’s about politics, not “new” or “old”. Of course, how to define anarchism is a permanent bone of contention. I see it as anti-state socialism, and don’t have much time for tendencies that sound to me like “any old shit will do”. Still, it’s hardly new if academics repeat mistakes by earlier ones: Malatesta was complaining about self-serving misrepresentations of anarchism in 1892 ( The Method of Freedom , p163).

I hope to get wisdom as well as inspiration from history. But history is a messy business. Marx got it right about people making history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. I think the writing of anarchist history has always faced an uphill struggle. This is the story of an oppositional social movement, after all. Sometimes those who know most about what went on, say nothing (“no names, no pack drill”, after all). Sometimes anarchists (yes, even proper anarchists) can write stuff that is boring, simplistic, or wrong. There’s always the temptation (I can feel it now) to read one more book before saying anything.

Feel free to laugh at this, as I am an old sectarian who has no time for understanding without judgement; but I think we need to write history with respect. A mind is a hard thing to keep open: it’s vital to not simply accept assumptions that suit you. Be critical. What’s written down may not be the whole story. It may not even be true. And we need to respect the people of the past. To demand they be either resolutely heroic or inherently dismissable (a bunch of “extra-thick thickies”, as Freedom slagged off the miners, perhaps?) is not clever.

Professor Yaffle

Picture Sources:

The misadventures of Ann and Archie [on the uses of history]” by Richard Warren p55 of Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, #5 [1980]

Anarchaeologists” by Richard Warren p97 of Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, #5 [1980]