January 26, 2021

Book Review: Great Anarchists

from Center for a Stateless Society

Book Review: Ruth Kinna and Clifford Harper. Great Anarchists (London: Dog Section Press, 2020)

by Kevin Carson

Written by anarchist scholar Ruth Kinna (professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University and editor of Anarchist Studies) and illustrated by Ralph Harper (most famous for the illustrations in Radical Technology), this book is a collection of essays on ten anarchists that were originally published as stand-alone pamphlets. 

The essays — not presented in chronological order, or any apparent topical order — are all, despite being comparatively short, substantive introductions to the life and work of their respective subjects, to their involvement in the major issues of their day, and to their subsequent influence and significance for anarchism. 

The first essay — appropriately enough in my view, considering he’s my favorite of the ten — is on Kropotkin. It can be taken as typical of the general approach of all the essays in the book. It presents Kropotkin very much in the context of his time, rather than (the title notwithstanding) as one of a pantheon of “Great Anarchists.” For example, it mentions that, although he’s misleadingly referred to as the “father of anarchist communism,” communism already existed as an anarchist tendency in his day. He did, however, contribute to its visibility; he motivated a significant number of Bakuninist collectivists to convert to communism, and arguably played the leading role in communism becoming the dominant anarchist tendency for the next few decades.

The essay also discusses his relationship to Ricardo Flores Magon and the Mexican Revolution, and his controversial positions (like support for the Allied cause in WWI). Above all, it explores the intellectual significance of his writing. Both Mutual Aid and The State challenged the view of human history and society promoted by the dominant capitalist ideology. And The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories, and Workshops explored the practical possibilities of a future anarchist society, and the liberatory potential of decentralized technology. In addition, the list of Kropotkin’s posthumous influences includes “Murray Bookchin, Paul Goodman, Cindy Milstein, Brian Morris, Graham Purchase, Rudolf Rocker, Roel Van Duyn and Colin Ward.”

Although as a communist Kropotkin came into conflict with both the anarchists without adjectives and the individualists, the essay suggests that his actual communism was hardly doctrinaire. For example:

Kropotkin left the precise determination of needs open. And he also trusted local communities to work out how access to the commons should be organised. These judgements were always context specific and there could be no overarching plan.

In fact this aspect of his thought — along with the affection he displayed, in his immense historical erudition, for the infinite variety of organizational expedients adopted by human beings from place to place over the millennia — has caused me to view Kropotkin as himself being a sort of anarchist without adjectives in spirit. If Kropotkin was a communist, much like the more recent communist Colin Ward, he clearly viewed communism as made for human beings rather than the reverse. In this regard he sets an example that should be paid more heed by a lot of present-day communists — as well as all the other forms of hyphenated anarchists — today.

The other essays are comparable, in the way they combine breadth of scope with a considerable amount of detail despite their limited space. The selection of figures to include is varied and gives no indication of ideological bias to my eye. They include Godwin and Proudhon among the founding figures, Bakunin (of course), and Voltairine de Cleyre from the individualists. Even Oscar Wilde makes an appearance — a choice some might quibble over given that Wilde, like his influence William Morris, was a Marxist of sorts. (As Kinna puts it, “Anarchists should surely reserve a place for him in the pantheon of Great Anarchists, but perhaps should not expect him to rush to fill it.”)

All in all, a book worth getting — not only for yourself, but for that friend you’re looking to nudge into learning a bit more about anarchism. It’s a short and readable book, neither intimidatingly long nor written in an off-putting academic style, but at the same full of substantive information that might sufficiently pique the interest of someone new to anarchism to inspire further investigation. And the addition of Harper’s illustrations make it a very attractive little book.

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