Frank H. Brooks, Review of For Anarchism: History, Theory, and Practice by David Goodway and of Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 1872-1886 by Caroline Cahm, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 4. (Dec., 1990), pp. 1355-1356.
Book Reviews: Political Theory
Anarchists have typically been seen as either naive idealists or mindless bombthrowers. In truth, most have fallen somewhere between these two extremes as they dealt with the theoretical demands of anarchist ideals and the practical necessities of anarchist activism.. In different ways, the anthology For Anarchism and Cahm's monograph on Peter Kropotkin address this dilemma of anarchist praxis.
Goodway's anthology attempts to break the dilemma into its constituent parts, theory on the one side and history and practice on the other. Luckily, there is considerable overlap. For political theorists, the four articles in the theory section are likely to be of most interest. Daniel Guerin offers a brief summary of the bad blood between Marxism and anarchism, unfortunately without saying much about their theoretical differences. Alan Carter's piece is more satisfactory, for he develops an "anarchist theory of history" that is more parsimonious, and explains more, than the Marxist model. Turning Marx on his head, Carter argues that the state shapes the relations of production in order to guarantee a surplus that it can extract to build up the "forces of coercion.'' In short, Carter considers the institutional needs of the state, not its "relative autonomy," a perspective that offers a simpler explanation of why the Bolshevik state did not "wither away" than do the many volumes of Marxist apologetics. Carter's voluntaristic antithesis to Marxist determinism finds an echo in Peter Marshall's survey of anarchist theories of human nature. Marshall eventually challenges the concept of a fixed "human nature" altogether, suggesting that humans are "both the products and agents of history" (p. 141). Robert Graham takes this a step further in questioning how and why people would cooperate in the absence of state coercion. Focusing on "self-assumed obligations," he draws connections between anarchism and laissez-faire liberalism, particularly the potential role of contract in an anarchist society.
Although the theory articles are interesting, it is the remaining articles in For Anarchism and the book on Kropotkin that really tackle the question of praxis. Nick Rider's article on the 1931 rent strike in Barcelona paints a picture of anarchists there as practical strategists responding to the problems of the urban working class in a rapidly growing city. Carl Levy's survey of Italian anarchism from the 1860s to the 1920s suggests that anarchists, though a minority within the Socialist movement, had a disproportionate influence, particularly on syndicalism and council communism. In the present day, anarchism as a movement and even as an explicit ideology is minuscule, although its influence is widely felt in some circles. Tom Cahill suggests that "contemporary co-ops ... are subtly imbued with the anarchist spirit" (p. 251) even though he attributes the dramatic growth of co-ops in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s to the legalization of common ownership and the provision of advice and financial support from national and local governments. Murray Bookchin, the preeminent anarchist theorist of the last twenty years, offers a much more strident and convincing thesis connecting anarchism to new social movements such as environmentalism, feminism, antimilitarism, and community control groups. Decrying the drift of the New Left to conventional politics and the irrelevancy of a Marxism confined to the "professoriat," Bookchin sounds the recurring themes of this volume: "If there is to be any Left today or in the future, it will have to come from various forms of eco-anarchsim in conjunction with the new social movements on both continents" (p. 274).
Cahm's book on Kropotkin deals in the greatest detail with the dilemma of praxis, focusing on one of anarchism's greatest theorists and revolutionaries. Cahm's intentions are to rescue Kropotkin from undue identification with either "propaganda by deed" or bookish theory. Drawing upon the proceedings of various anarchist conventions, Kropotkin's articles in Le Revoke, and the writings and activities of anarchists in most of the countries of Western Europe, Cahm makes a sophisticated case for rooting Kropotkin's theories and strategies firmly in the experiences of continental anarchism. Unfortunately, the result of such conscientious research is a book that relies on long quotations and overlapping narratives and presumes considerable knowledge of late-nineteenth-century socialism and anarchism -- or at least considerable willingness to flip back to the endnotes. Nevertheless, Cahm makes some audacious, if muted, claims. For example, she says that anarchist communism (usually associated with Kropotkin, its most tireless advocate) actually predated his writings and that he turned to anarchist communism for strategic reasons, namely, to inform and enhance the propaganda effect of anarchists' "acts of revolt." Eventually, Kropotkin argued that if anarchists were going to engage in terrorism, it ought to be economic terrorism, pointing the way to the eventual revolutionary act of expropriation. The common thread underlying both books is revealed clearly in Cahm's analysis of Kropotkin's 1880 series of articles, "The Spirit of Revolt," whose principal theme was the "vital importance of a strong and close relationship between theory and action" (p. 166).
In short, anarchists both in the nineteenth century and now have tried to find strategies consistent with their ideals, a struggle that at its best encourages creativity and flexibility. As the crisis of both parliamentary and revolutionary socialism continues, it is thus useful to reexamine -- or rather (in keeping with the spirit of these books (reapply and revise -- the historic third strand of socialism, anarchism.
Frank H. Brooks