By Ruth Kinna and Clifford Harper
Dog Section Press 2020
Review by Jim Jepps
With the newly released Great Anarchists, Dog Section Press continue their project of stylishly bringing radical ideas to a wider, non-academic audience. The book, written by Ruth Kinna, presents a series of vignettes on ten individuals who helped to lay the foundations of the anarchist tradition, and it does so in a snappy, accessible style at a very reasonable £6.
Beautifully illustrated by Clifford Harper the Great Anarchists include the likes of Kropotkin, Proudhon and Lucy Parsons, detailing their lives with an overview of their main concerns and contributions to anarchism. Many activists will be familiar with names like Bakunin or Louise Michel but are often less acquainted with the substance of their ideas, perhaps intimidated by lengthy tomes written a long time ago or simply not seeing the relevance to their day to day activity. Fair enough, our lives are far from dry and dusty, but these short biographies provide a useful reminder that those who forged our traditions were recognisably like us, albeit living in very different circumstances. Their names may carry the weight of historical authority today but when they lived they had no guarantees that their contributions would leave a mark and they too had to contend with the problems and hardships of life, as well as the joys and pleasures that come with it.
Drawing mainly on 18th and 19th century anarchists the focus of the book is on those who helped bring the modern anarchist movements into being. Those who shaped struggles joined by free agreement, concerned with mutual aid and resisting oppression, that were built from the bottom up. The book shows that those ideas were not inevitable, indeed many took other paths, because they came out of the lives of real people, making decisions for themselves, knowing the consequences might be jail, ostracism or death.
You might gently wince at the choice of figures the book dubs Great Anarchists and some may flinch at their favourite anarchist being left out, whispering “where are you Emma?” to themselves as they read, but a book that included everyone would be infinitely large and take a very long time to write, so we have to accept there is no getting around leaving out many interesting and worthy people for now. You might also find yourself intrigued at the inclusion of someone like Oscar Wilde – but there lies a strength I think in that Kinna does not have a strict and proscriptive idea of who can be let into the Anarchist pantheon, she has a far more inclusive definition, one that involves advancing anarchistic thinking rather than focusing on those who were bellowing the word anarchism the loudest.
That looseness means that we’re presented with a tradition that’s open to being amended and adapted. One that is a living, breathing movement rather than an academic exercise or an ossified theology whose tenets are more important than just doing our best with what we’ve got. In short, we’re left with an anarchism that is not something that can be learned by rote or simply belongs in a library (although, obviously, all libraries should stock this book!). It’s something that has to be lived, as those Great Anarchists lived it, and as such we can learn a lot from their example.
Featured image: American anarchist Voltarine de Cleyre (1866- 1912), by Clifford Harper