George Walford: Review of ‘What is Anarchism? An Introduction’ by Donald Rooum

Let me start by declaring an interest. Donald is a friend of mine, and when reviewing Beyond Politics for Freedom he said some flattering things about it. This obliges me to be extra generous in reviewing his new pamphlet, since compliments will tend to be discounted while any hint of criticism will carry extra weight. On the other hand, if you can’t clobber your friends, who can you clobber? Taking a swipe at an enemy can be dangerous. Perhaps it will be better – it will certainly be easier – to take the pamphlet straight, not trying to slant the response either way. So first a report with one or two queries, then the comments.

None of us are born anarchists and, as a society, we have so far managed to avoid having anarchy thrust upon us. Some do achieve anarchism, and this pamphlet sets out to provide information enabling readers to make a sensible decision for themselves. The title-piece occupies the first 28 pages, extracts from 16 earlier writers on the subject the remaining 44. Kropotkin, Bakunin, Morris and other members of the orthodox pantheon make their usual appearance. Proudhon, the first to call himself an anarchist, and Woodcock, author of what is probably still the standard history, report absent; it’s a pamphlet, not an encyclopedia. Some less familiar names are introduced: Bill Christopher, George Nicholson, Jack Robinson, Vernon Richards, Philip Sansom, Peter Turner and Charlotte Wilson. Here we take up only the opening essay. Written straightforwardly in clear, workmanlike English, without tendentiousness or twiddly bits, it presents a short, objective account of main-line anarchism as it is today. (And if you, dear reader, do not recognise that as an achievement it shows you have never tackled the job yourself). It falls into three sections, each of them with a cartoon heading (here reduced) that would go far to justify a less worthwhile text. (It also includes an advance beyond orthodox anarchism; I leave that till the end).

Donald Rooum - What Anarchists Believe

What Anarchists Believe
Anarchists believe that the point of society is to widen the choices of individuals. Not believing human beings perfect or perfectible, they aim at a society without coercive institutions, one in which all may do anything they choose except interfere with the freedom of others. This distinguishes anarchism both from Marxism (which, declaring that the state will wither away, uses power to strengthen it), and from so-called anarcho-capitalism (condemned for proposals which would hand over power to the capitalists).

Like people of many other persuasions, religious as well as political, individual anarchists have sometimes resorted to terrorism, but anarchism as a movement has never favoured this method: ‘social relationships cannot be assassinated or bombed out of existence.’ The human race has spent most of its life in foraging communities without rulers or government; we do not know how government began, but anarchists suggest systematic robbery as a likely source. During the last few centuries monarchy has been replaced by democracy as the normal method of civilised government, but the people are still required to hand over their inherent power to rulers. Anarchism would have them retain it for their own use, replacing prohibition with freedom and the division between rich and poor with equality. The way to achieve this is by persuasion, since the structure of society conforms, on the whole, to what most people believe to be right.

Donald Rooum - How Anarchists Differ

How Anarchists Differ
Asked how porcupines make love, the funny man replied: ‘Very, very carefully.’ Anarchists differ very, very vigorously. They ‘slag each other off as cheats, liars, thieves, agents of the secret police and repulsive persons generally.’ Our author blames personal antagonism and differences of personal style, but this hardly seems sufficient; conservatives also display these personal features, but they seldom slag each other off in the same way. Why the difference? Organised as autonomous groups and individuals anarchists seek to spread their ideas through publications,meetings, demonstrations, communes, free schools, advice centres and clubs.

What is Anarchism? takes us beyond classism. It does not present anarchism as distinctively a movement of the workers or the poor or the oppressed, it recognises that although some anarchists come across as ‘workerists’ and others as ‘intellectuals,’ the distinction cannot be explained by reference to education, income or relation to the means of production.

Anarchists differ in their ideas about the organisation of anarchy (though none of them propose to lay down blueprints), about religion, the correct attitude to war, animals, vegetarianism, money and property; most of them reject any system using exchange of equal values as designed to perpetuate poverty, and Nineteenth-Century proposals for central banks have largely been dropped. It tends to be the younger anarchists who expect anarchy soon; another tendency sees the movement as one of ‘”permanent protest,” calling attention to the injustices of society without hoping to change anything much.’

In this section the pamphlet tells us: ‘The stated objective of the war against Hitler was to preserve the British Empire.’ Stated by whom? it was accepted among war-resisters at the time that (although all sorts of people said the war was for this, that or the other thing) the Allies had never declared any official war aims so nobody knew what they were fighting for.

Donald Rooum - What Anarchists Do

What Anarchists Do
Claiming about one in seven of British non-voters for the movement, What is Anarchism? comes up with a probable figure of half a million self-identified anarchists in Britain today, with a larger number of ‘unwitting and potential’ ones. These figures depend on taking a refusal to vote ‘because it only encourages them’ as an indication of anarchism. I suggest it can equally well show a wish to avoid distraction from the familiar pursuit of personal affairs, whether caused by Tories, anarchists or anybody else.

Organised as autonomous groups and individuals anarchists seek to spread their ideas through publications, meetings, demonstrations, communes, free schools, advice centres and clubs; their inclination towards the printed word led one seven-year-old to ask her parents whether anarchists have to sell books. Television has virtually ended street-corner soapbox oratory. (I would credit the increase in traffic with at least equal responsibility). Anarchists take part in campaigns and demonstrations organised by other movements, and have been especially active in squatting, sometimes using the premises for clubs and cafes. ‘Their commitment to widening the choice of individuals is not just a matter of publicising anarchy and advocating revolution. It is also a matter of practical direct action.’

With this opening essay to mark out the area, and the selection from other anarchist writers to illustrate particular themes, the pamphlet makes a solid contribution to the literature; it is going to be around for a long time to come. What of the beliefs and proposals presented?

Anarchists believe that the foraging communities demonstrated the viability of societies without government. They did indeed, but only for a world population small enough to live on what grows naturally. The present population exceeds that figure by thousands of millions. Present society offers a vast array of choices, highly valued by poor as well as rich, that in an anarchist society would not be available.

The state grew out of the foraging communities (there was nowhere else it could have come from), so if these were anarchies it follows that the state grew out of anarchy. Had it done so once this might have been an accident, but it seems to have done so six times independently; in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus River Valley, the Yellow River Valley, Mesoamerica and Peru. Why should we expect this not to happen a seventh time, should anarchy be re-established? If we reply that the new anarchy will be different from the original we lose our demonstration, for that would mean the foraging communities have not shown the viability of what anarchists are now proposing.

Most anarchist organisations join in efforts to achieve positive reforms and support disturbances intended to foster revolution; so far as these activities go they might as well call themselves liberals, socialists or communists, according to what they are doing at the moment. They are marked out as anarchists by a feature which no other movement exhibits: Repudiation of government and the state, the insistence that no change can be more than palliative so long as these things persist. Present society cannot effectively be reformed or even revolutionised, it has to be rejected, a fresh start made on different principles; human choice will reach its maximum only when the state no longer exists.

Setting out with this on their banners the anarchists run up against an almost unbroken wall of dismissal, for divided though they are in other ways, non-anarchists unite in accepting or supporting the state. Many of them have never encountered anarchism, but when they do they almost invariably reject it, and they do this because it would impose restraints upon them. Present society offers a vast array of choices, highly valued by poor as well as rich, that in an anarchist society would not be available. Declaring their intention to widen choice the anarchists attempt to eliminate many options, and the pamphlet before us is one of the few anarchist publications to acknowledge this: ‘to prevent a person from acting coercively is to limit that person’s choices.’

The standard anarchist response to this argues that coercive choices interfere with the freedom of others; the movement supports only those which do not do this. It sounds sensible – until you start to wonder which these choices are, that do not interfere with the freedom of others. Then it quickly appears that every choice worth arguing about does interfere. Once more What is Anarchism? moves beyond accepted dogma, recognising that anarchy cannot bring freedom from coercion: ‘It is only the absence of government, or coercive establishments.’ (Emphasis added). The standard anarchist argument, that in a stateless society people seeking to interfere with the freedom of others would be restrained by the community, is in fact an acceptance of the need for coercion, but one that its proponents seldom recognise for what it is.

Everything real is (at least) two-sided; no principle can maintain itself in the total absence of its contrary. In order to maintain the freedom anarchists value an anarchist society would have to maintain also coercion, and What is Anarchism? is among the few anarchist publications to recognise this.

from Ideological Commentary 59, February 1993.