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Reviews

Twenty-First Century Anarchism

Twenty-First Century Anarchism: Unorthodox Ideas for a New Millennium, edited by Jon Purkis and James Bowen. 214 pp. London: Cassell, 1997. $17.95

In this British anthology of eleven essays, the editors have attempted to paint an eclectic picture of what anarchism has to offer our children and grandchildren. Purkis and Bowen are quite right to start with the assertion that traditional anarchism needs a major overhaul. But these pilgrims aren't quite sure where they want to progress with this insight, and the result is a book that roams from the Slough of Despond to the Celestial City.

The introduction may be the best part of the book. As the editors write, anarchism keeps coming back in new and updated versions, despite all the persecution and ridicule it has endured over the past two centuries. Their comprehensive definition of anarchy as "hedonism…tempered by an acute sense of responsibility" could hardly be improved upon. Most readers of this journal will agree (if they didn't, they wouldn't be reading it) that anarchism is a vital, protean ideology that does indeed have something to offer the coming millennium. We all cut our teeth on Kropotkin and Godwin; we revere Malatesta and Bookchin; we are excited about the quirky new ideas coming from Zerzan and Queer Nation. This book may represent the next stage in our evolution. Here we have everything from the adventures of Mr Blobby to the politics of yogurt. And somehow, it makes sense.

Certainly the next century's anarchism will have to concern itself with much more than traditional political and economic analyses. Its integration with feminism and ecology is already well advanced, but it will also have to develop its own theories of human nature (see Dave Morland's chapter), sexuality (Judy Greenway) and popular culture (Jude Davies). We already know a good deal about Fredy Perlman, and John Moore doesn't add much that is new; the same can be said for Steve Millett's analysis of social welfare. And a few of the chapters are just plain silly. Paul Rosen's take on anarchy in the music biz is a celebration of self-absorption and grunge-worship, raw capitalism clumsily disguised as rebellion. In the cleverly titled "Curse of the Drinking Classes," James Bowen exhibits a stunning grasp of the obvious. Worst of all is Colin Wisely's "Echoes from the Future," which this reviewer must confess he did not understand at all. Wisely gives us an obituary for an Italian nihilist who died in 2033, followed by an odd tale about raising money for a drug-rehab center in an improbably named English town.

Enough criticism. This anthology contains some real gems. It's difficult to think of any topic more contentious than "human nature," and anarchists have argued it just as rancorously as any roomful of clueless Jungians and Skinnerians with lead pipes and candlesticks. In a lucid and intellectually skilled essay Dave Morland ranges across the spectrum of debate, challenging the validity of the "good/bad" dichotomy. Anarchists have been accused of rosy naivety on the subject of human nature: our vision can never be realized unless people are altruistic and compassionate, which they just aren't. Some anarchists go to the other extreme: Bakunin wrote that everyone lusts for power, and that is why power must be put permanently out of reach. Morland argues persuasively that we are what we are — sometimes saintly, sometimes pretty rotten, and that anarchism must grow up and learn to deal with the unpredictability and inconsistencies of human nature.

In a sense anarchism is all about direct action. Indirect action, if there is such a thing, necessarily involves working through whatever channels and hierarchies are already in place. Lindsay Hart's overview of direct action in all its permutations is realistic and cautionary. Before anarchists can make effective use of ecotage, civil disobedience or the like, we must carefully define our terms and prepared to justify our projects ethically and intellectually. We must also consider the likely responses of the State, and decide whether the risk is worth it.

In "The Responsible Anarchist," Jon Purkis asks one of the best questions this reviewer has ever seen: instead of worrying about the most socially responsible way to get from here to there, shouldn't we be asking: why make the journey at all? Well, okay, it's not exactly a new question. But Purkis, with an engaging style and tongue in cheek, gives us some wide-ranging answers. It's not easy being an anarchist in a decadent late-capitalist world, and we all have to make compromises. We can try, however; and we can think deeply about whatever we consume, produce or facilitate.

A newcomer to anarchist thought will find the glossary at the end of the book useful. Newcomers may not be reading Twenty-First Century Anarchism, however; and those of us who have been around for a while already know who Bakunin was and why mutual aid is a good idea. The definitions are clear and concise but not very challenging. It's interesting, though, to see the entry "Rousseau, Jean-Jacques" followed immediately by "Sex Pistols." A final note: the cover art is really cool.

 
 
 

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