Thursday, July 10, 2014

Peter Marshall's "Demanding the Impossible": Book Review

Seven hundred pages of fine print, and another hundred of footnotes (in 2010's revised edition) narrate thousands of years over which people have longed for the right to make their own decisions, live as best they choose among each others' mutual assistance and communal support, and to conduct their livelihoods and relationships as they please, free of coercion, top-down dominance, or imposed government or creed. If leaders are chosen, if organizations are established, then these are entered freely and exited at will.

This sums up anarchism's principled versions. It seems from early on, philosophers, priests, bosses, legislators, politicians, and generals all have feared such a movement. Peter Marshall's immense survey shows the results, parading steadily the greatest names in the centuries who've tried to make theory into practice. The Introduction begins with great quotes from some of its exponents, and prefaces in Part I anarchism as it is in theory. While "the river of anarchy" changes with each version, the essence of freedom attracts a few each generation to plunge into what, by the heady rhetoric recurring, appear inviting waters of liberation, personally and socially. For, society for most advocates remains, even if the State withers away. The former is sought freely; the latter isn't chosen. "Society and the State" and "Freedom and Equality" articulate this in Marshall's introduction.

In Part II, the forerunners of anarchism, Taoism and Buddhism, surprisingly show how ancient this impulse is. Feared by Plato if somewhat anticipated by the pre-Socratic Greeks, its impulses survived into early and medieval Christianity, among such as dissenters, heretics, guilds, and rebels against Rome--and against Luther, tellingly. By the English Revolution, we see the short rise of Levellers and Diggers, and the brief establishment of Gerard Winstanley's commune--and then his about-face later in life, as he turned away from his earlier rebellious stance. Inconsistency, as Marshall patiently notes, characterizes many who in the French Renaissance and Enlightenment and also, as with Burke in the British Enlightenment, toyed with models for radical change without truly supporting them.

By Part III, French, German, British, and American libertarians emerge. Not quite anarchist for the term was not yet in common usage, but such as Tom Paine presage if imperfectly, for many sought the protection of a Jeffersonian State, however limited, along a federalist or decentralized system, the dreams of the later 18th century, as revolution sparked the possibility for change and no more kings. Partial anarchists, as it were, abound among Rousseau, Emerson, Swift, Mill, Morris, or Fourier, et al.

In Part IV, we finally reach the heart of the book. Classic anarchist thinkers begin with the passionate example of William Godwin, the lover of order. Next comes the near-Nietzschian Max Stirner, the conscious egoist, who as many would angered Marx. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's intricate theories reveal the philosopher of poverty. Two Russians pair off: Michael Bakunin as the fanatic of freedom, full of inconsistencies as many theorists seem to be in this century. Peter Kropotkin, the revolutionary evolutionist, tries to tame the theories with a study of geography and science to fit anarchism within a natural determinism, akin to many world-changing paradigms of the nineteenth century. So does, on a smaller scale, the fierce Elisée Reclus: the geographer of liberty. For all but Reclus in this long part, Marshall offers a grand sweep of their life and thought before entering topics such as their ethical views, political attitudes, thoughts on the State or human nature, to clarify particular ideas in depth.

The twentieth century's Errico Malatesta, the electrician of revolution, sparks a new current: the energy of the will, not of nature, as a way to transform human drives towards peaceful (again a contentious point among many, as the fall of the Paris Commune and the rise of WWI split many) goals. Marshall seems to sympathize with those who reject war or violence, as these are coercive means to achieve the end of the end of class antagonism, national boundaries, and capitalist rule.

Leo Tolstoy, the count of peace, gets sympathetic treatment, and various American individualists and anti-State Communists such as Lysander Spooner (who finally takes up a question I'd been asking ever since I read Locke to ask: who signed us up to the social contract established by the "consent of the governed" centuries ago?), Voltairine de Cleyre, Benjamin Tucker, and Alexander Berkman but they're all skimmed over too hastily, in admittedly a very lengthy book as it is. Sasha B's companion, Emma Goldman as "the most dangerous woman" earns a brisk, lively study, as Marshall scans her ambiguous position between understanding and condoning the use of violence to achieve liberation. 

German Communists, notably the brave martyr to the cause in the aftermath of 1919's failed Munich soviet, Gustav Landauer, follow suit, and then Mohandas Gandhi, who counters brutality as "the gentle revolutionary"; a strength of Marshall's treatment is that he firmly if gently calls out Gandhi for devolving from leader to guru with a cult of personality, or chides in part V, "Anarchism in action," those in France, Italy, and Spain who capitulated to compromise, as with the CNT-FAI, and so lost the momentum of the social revolution, during Spain's war against fascism--and Stalinism. Still, then as now, some accommodation with party politics appears inevitable for many radicals, to advance situations amenable to elusive goals of autonomy and mutual aid beyond unions or regions.

Russia and the Ukraine, with Makhno's early attempt, similar to Spain's at a sustained anarchist society during war, offer cautionary tales, as do repeated situations in Northern Europe, the United States, and especially Latin America, when attempts at progress were stymied by unions, violence, agitation, and crackdowns. Mexico and Cuba repeat the same story as the USSR and Spain, where anti-statist traditions were lured or pressed into capitulation by crafty cadres led by brutal despots.

While these chapters inevitably and rather dully in parts tell some of the same narrative the earlier chapters on leading anarchists had, depending on the nation, glimpses at such movements as French Situationists, British punks, American Wobblies, and German agitators show how the 20c managed in a few nations to survive its heyday 1880-1930 and a few progressives lived long enough to see the 1960s and inspire younger activists. The downside of this in India, where the Sarvodaya movement was co-opted by a very clever politician who used it for his own party advancement, is also telling.

After a hasty look at Asia (many regions get a rapid glance, and this tends to be names-and-dates and unions-full-of-initials types of coverage, of uneven interest compared to earlier biographical narrative), Marshall shifts in part VI to modern anarchism, with the New Left and the counterculture. This lively section looks at Situationists, Kabouters, Provos, and Greens along with anarchists themselves, as by the 1960s, a loose collective rather than unions or platforms drives many experiments. One of these, concocted on the New Right as anarcho-capitalism, merits blunt critique.

Modern libertarians and anarchists gain briefer mention; Murray Bookchin and his ecology of freedom meets an in-depth challenge as Marshall takes on this former and then future Marxist who bridled at the "lifestyle" rather than "social" anarchists as insufficiently committed. Marshall's passion emerges here and makes this part of the book lively and spirited. Similarly, his reprise as Part VII of the book's contents, as he reviews the big thinkers who established the legacy of anarchism, its ends and means, and the relevance of anarchism, along with an epilogue, shows how difficult it is for the author to let go of this vast topic. He examines the strengths and weaknesses, he tackles the applicability of this ideal to our "post-scarcity" economy after the heady utopian dreams of the 60s have given way to environmental damage, job loss, unfettered capitalism, and a commodity culture.

Again, in the last sections there is some repetition, and certain material gets included a third time, for overlap of thinkers, regions, and recent events may be inevitable. A history of a big idea causes the weight of a big book. But anyone who's read shorter works such as Colin Ward's Anarchy: A Very Short Introduction or the newer A Living Spirit of Revolt by Ziga Vodovnik will welcome Marshall. 

P.S. This massive work might be read on a Kindle so note-taking can be eased. As the print copy and bulk necessitate a very small font, readers may prefer a dual version. I found the index and notes easier to consult in book fashion, but the highlighting made an e-book appealing. A few typos remained, and the margins of a Kindle version meant that 40% of the text was end-material, but the portability of this meant I could finally finish what I'd been making my way through in print, slowly...
(Amazon US 6-10-14)

[His conclusions anticipate anthropologist David Graeber's post-millennial OWS activism, reviewed well by Christopher Shea at the Chronicle of Higher Education; Kalefa Sanneh at The New Yorker; Greg Downey at Resilience, and Eli Cook at Raritan, which burst forth a year after this edition.]

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