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Review: Anarchy’s ideas

This introduction to the historical context of libertarian debates is a valuable clarifying work on the philosophy’s core ideas.

Debating Anarchism
by Mike Finn
ISBN: 978-1-350118-10-2
224 pp
£17.99 RRP

What exactly is it to be an anarchist? As a political philosophy, anarchism can embody ideas about the nature of authority, the state, and capital. It can also describe a way of doing things as individuals and collectives. In the first sense, anarchists are relatively easy to define. Since the 19th century, various political actors have self-described as anarchists, often appending further descriptors (social anarchism, anarchist communism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc.) to clarify their precise version. The second sense is fuzzier. Humans engage in diverse anarchistic practices daily, even without awareness of anarchism as a political ideal.

This often makes the study of anarchism a confusing endeavour. As Mike Finn notes in his introduction to Debating Anarchism, ‘The problem of anarchist historiography is that anarchism is either everywhere – an immanent, naturally occurring reality that is universal and eternal … or nowhere – an inconceivable entity erased from the pages of scholarly literature’. Finn’s book seeks to resolve this by ‘demythologising’ anarchism and setting its development within broader historical currents.

Rooted in discussions with students across two courses he taught as a historian at the University of Exeter Debating Anarchism is an exceptional effort to pin down precisely what we are looking at when we talk about anarchism and anarchists. Central is putting the development of both into dialogue with other historical currents. In some cases, this involves retreading familiar ground but in new ways. The first chapter thus explores the 19th century socialist gatherings of the First International and is dedicated to the thought of Proudhon, Bakunin, Wilson, Guillaume, Blanc and Kropotkin. Attention is paid to the 1872 split between the anarchists and Marxists, a topic too often presented as a division over doctrine and consequently a bit dry, and disconnected from events. Finn prefers to trace the life trajectories of the major actors, exploring the contexts that led to Proudhon’s mutualism, Bakunin’s anarchist socialism, and setting the anarchist faction’s antipathy to the state in a wider context. Readers get a sense not just of different intellectual currents but also of the flows of history that connected individuals to the revolutionary upheavals and patterns of repression that marked their lives. We get a vivid sense of the lived experience of revolution and social contexts reflected in the development of 19th Century anarchism. Rather than find anarchists everywhere (and nowhere) or find them as isolated theoreticians of revolution, we see them inserted as living participants in the “age of revolution”.

Chapter Two takes a similar approach to the debates around “propaganda of the deed”, often abstracted as primarily a split between collectivists and individualists, between those who naively believed that isolated acts of anti-state violence would stir the masses to revolt and those who saw organisation and mass struggle as the answer. Finn dissolves such rigid distinctions, contextualising anarchist violence within state repression. He then interrogates the different things that turn of the century anarchists understood by anarchist “deeds”, including education, trade unionism, mutual aid, and violence.

Chapter Three examines the involvement of anarchists in the Russian and Spanish revolutions. For well-read anarchists, both the Makhnovist Movement and the anarcho-syndicalist CNT will be familiar topics, but Finn’s exploration of the histories, contexts, internal debates and multiple anarchisms within both movements still offers plenty to think about. There’s a willingness to critique and probe the positions taken by different factions and individuals within these movements, leaving plenty of space to ponder the nature of anarchism.

In Chapter Four, the extra-European aspects of the movement come into view as Finn discusses the development of anarchism in India and Japan. In doing so, Finn looks to resist the temptation to “co-opt” these traditions to one global anarchism, aiming to understand the likes of M.P.T. Acharya and Hatta Shuzo as creating new anarchisms, themselves products of determining historical circumstances.

Finally, Chapter Five examines anarchism “at the end of history”, particularly the formation of anarcha-feminism, Black anarchism, alter-globalisation anarchism and green anarchism.

Debating Anarchism is a high-quality introductory text for anyone looking to understand anarchism’s key ideas, anarchist ways of doing history or anyone who wants to place the emergence of anarchist theories at different points in modern global history. As the product of a university seminar, there’s discussion of different scholarly viewpoints that non-academic readers might find distracting. However, this is generally woven in deftly and unobtrusively. Finn has masterfully pulled together the disparate strands of anarchy across two centuries in a sympathetic but still critical way, inclusive of a wide range of ideas, but still purposeful in understanding where exactly we can find anarchism.

~ Jack Saunders

This article first appeared in the Winter 2023-4 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal

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