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Reformist Anarchism 1800-1936: A Study of the Feasibility of Anarchism

Reformist Anarchism, 1800-1936: A Study of the Feasibility of Anarchism by José Peréz Adán. 242 pp. Great Britain: Merlin Books Ltd., 1992. £ 9.95 net (U.K.), paper.
The subtitle of this scholarly study is somewhat misleading. Its aim is not specifically to demonstrate the feasibility of anarchism, though Adán does briefly consider that question. Rather, it is to "explain, elaborate and discuss the philosophical, political and economic foundations of Reformist Anarchism as portrayed in the works of William Godwin, Josiah Warren, Stephen P. Andrews, Benjamin Tucker, Eric Gill and Herbert Read." Adán regards these authors as constituting a reformist tradition within anarchist thinking separate from what he calls revolutionary anarchism, which he associates with such figures as Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman and the Spanish anarchists.

Readers familiar with the writings of the latter group will probably have the same reaction I did: that the differences among them are at least as significant as any set of differences that might be discerned between them as a "school" of revolutionary anarchism, and the group Adán identifies. This basic problem with the book's concept is compounded by the fact that the author never really makes clear or explicit what he considers the significant differences between these supposed two streams in anarchist thought. However, the book is a useful explication of and introduction to the thinking of the particular authors he has chosen to group together.

The work begins with brief biographical sket- ches of the six authors, with reference to their major works, and then considers their ideas in three major sections, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. The philosophy section, intended to explicate the basic assumptions of reformist anarchism and lay a theoretical foundation for its approaches to politics and economics, is unfortunately longer than it needs to be, often redundant, and, because Adán is not the most fluid writer, sometimes confused and confusing. In fact, Adán pretty well sums up the entire 60-odd page discussion in a single felicitous sentence, "Real independence is not compatible with established authority because the sovereignty of the individual…is not compatible with the sovereignty of the political state" (p.71). Skip the rest of the chapter unless you're a glutton for punishment.

The section on politics offers a good discussion of some basic anarchist concepts. Particularly interesting are the discussion of organization versus government, and the section on political participation as the criterion for the difference between what Adán calls "true" and "false" democracy.

In this section, Adán attempts to come to grips with what he sees as a major difference between reformist and revolutionary anarchism. He stresses the commitment of his authors to what he calls "gradualism," that is, to the use of education, reform as opposed to revolution, and in general a gradual transition on an individual level to an acceptance of the anarchist project; and he contrasts this with "confrontation with established authority." However, all the "revolutionary anarchists" he names, and Kropotkin in particular, were committed to education as a means of transformation, to inspiring the masses to spontaneous action rather than seizing power, and to the project of "building the new society within the old" by creating alternative organizations rather than directly confronting authority, except in very particular situations. Within anarchist thought as a whole, there is clearly a continuum, rather than a sharp break, on this issue. And the difference on this issue between all these anarchists, on the one hand, and the "state socialists" on the other, is far more significant than the differences among anarchist thinkers.

A clearer distinction appears to be Adán's perception that his reformist anarchists condone "transitory government," that is, that they will accept the temporary necessity of government, "even if it lasts forever," and even use it to advance their cause, in order to avoid the evils of violent, revolutionary transformation. Clearly, the "revolutionary anarchists" reject the necessity of even the most minimal government, for even the most limited period, and reject even more strongly the transformation of society through political action. But this notion of accepting government on a "practical" level, while maintaining a philosophical opposition to it, seems a slippery concept at best, and Adán himself recognizes this in his concluding critique. Adán takes great pains in another, very useful section to distinguish between "the transitory government of Reformist Anarchists" and the "minimal state of the minarchists," that is, modern libertarians like Nozick, a distinction which cannot be stressed enough. But its main effect is to make this notion of "an acceptance of reality and hence of government as a stage" seem a betrayal of the principles outlined in the rest of the work.
A more disturbing aspect of Adán's political discussion is his concentration on government to the neglect of broader issues of hierarchy and domination, issues raised most explicitly by Bookchin but always implicit in the work of other anarchists. That there is no discussion here of racism, sexism, homophobia or other "nongovernmental" constraints on freedom may be considered as owing to the authors under consideration, but from his contemporary perspective Adán should have at least raised the issues.

It is not at all clear how the theories discussed in the section on economics grow out of the earlier philosophical discussion, though this was Adán's stated intention. But this is the most detailed section of the book, and Adán's discussion of such key concepts as work, competition and profit offers a clear picture of how reformist anarchist economics differs from both capitalist and Marxist conceptions. He outlines a system which "puts the accent on consumption. From the point of view of consumption, that is demand, we can place ourselves in a better position to foster and promote equality." And he incidentally offers a rather effective critique of the theory which justified the economic debacle of the 1980s, supply-side economics. In a brief section called "The System at Work," Adán at last comes to grips with his subtitle, discussing the limited efforts of the American anarchists to test their theories in small communities and settlements. But this section is too small and too abstract, and leaves the reader intrigued by such notions as Warren's Bank of Exchange, the Labour Note, the Time Store and Free Banking, but with no real sense of their feasibility or practicality. The author compounds this problem in his concluding "Criticism" by focusing on the more abstract, philosophical objections to the anarchist project rather than on the pragmatic proposals of the previous section.

Reformist Anarchism concludes with a very useful bibliographic essay. Its index, however, will prove very frustrating for anyone interested in returning to a particular topic, for it lists only proper names.

A serious study of the feasibility of anarchism, "reformist" or otherwise, is probably long overdue. Reformist Anarchism unfortunately, despite its promising subtitle, is not that book. It is, however, a thought-provoking introduction to the work of some of the lesser-known British and American anarchist thinkers.