A Review of Anarchism and Its Aspirations, by Cindy Milstein

A Review of Anarchism and Its Aspirations, by Cindy Milstein

Few books gave me more hope than Cindy Milstein’s Anarchism and Its Aspirations. It kept me going through the past few translations, which had to do with some serious failings of anarchist organisations, and so I decided to recognise its merits here, if only to have something positive to say for once.

I am pretty cynical, and Milstein’s book is very much on the hippyish side, but the second thing I noticed is that it is refreshingly not anti-intellectual. She does not reduce everything to a dry list of mass movements (as geographically varied as possible) : she brings in Buber, Marx, Adorno, Arendt in a simple and unpretentious way when and where relevant.

Gustav Landauer is given a place of choice, which I think is a first for an introductory guide to anarchism, and she does not fall in the pitfalls of caricaturing the sides of so-called important issues within the anarchist movement, something which makes most introductions to anarchism make anarchism look like a collection of irrelevant strawmen. It portrays it much more organically and accurately.

It also develops the late twentieth early twenty-first century developments in anarchism, which is garanteed to give you a few Proust’s madeleines. Mine was when I read the acronym APPO, which I can’t remember having read since around 2007. Even though I have been loosely keeping in touch with more recent news from Oaxaca, I had completely forgotten what APPO meant to us, the so-called CPE generation (or at least to me). The example that the ideas I cherished could work, now, on a much larger scale than I would have dreamt (on a much larger scale than was ever actually the case in Oaxaca very probably, as internet news and rushed, enthusiastic translations were not always the most reliable).

I could not judge of its value as an introduction, but it was a much needed breath of hope.

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A review of Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism, and early New Zealand Anarchism, by Jared Davidson

When I picked up that book at first, I was nonplussed. “Great. Another biography of an anarchist great man,” I thought. But I was wrong. It is a very different book. It is remarkable by its unpretentiousness. The life of Philip Josephs is a narrative line, but the point of the book is to show how anarchism is not a story of Great Men and Great National Movements, it is a story of a constellation of obscure individuals, many of them entirely forgotten, across borders.

I particularly recommend the passage on early 20th century revolutionary and Jewish Glasgow. Also, it made me discover Lola Ridge, a New Zealand poet who emigrated to the US. I re-published some of her stuff here.

Sewing Freedom is also very modest in size, so it is a quick read, and beautifully illustrated, so it’s a pleasure.

Comments on AFAQ 2: Who do anarchists see as their “agents of social change”?

An Anarchist FAQ, published by AK Press, is too colossal, too intimidating to ‘review’, I have never read it. I doubt anyone ever has, apart from the editors and proof-readers who truly deserve some kind of medal. But I sometimes leaf through it, especially now that I claim to write ‘anarchist reviews’ which are really just my personal opinions, and I feel I sometimes need more insight on ‘what anarchists think of this’ (usually though, I just ask a couple of anarchists who care about whatever issue I’m writing about and that’s all). AFAQ is sometimes very English-speaking world oriented, and it is also geared towards a Trotskyism vs. Anarchism debate, because the people who frequently ask those Frequently Asked Questions are frequently Trotskyists. And really they are rhetorical questions aimed at making us maieutically realise the awesomeness of the vanguard leaders, and that is why I have so much admiration for people who actually answer them.

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Anyway, as I started my quest to show that there are important convergences between anarchism and value critique, I was confronted with two over-simplifications: on the one hand, anarchists saying that value critique was post-marxist and rejected class struggle altogether, on the other hand supporters of value critique saying that anarchism had the same approach as orthodox Marxists when it came to the centrality of the class-struggle and the proletariat as revolutionary agent. The truth is, both currents agree on Marx’s analysis of class, capital and class-struggle within capitalism, and both disagree with traditional Marxist interpretations of how to break from capitalism.

I was wonderfully relieved to see that the question of anarchism’s view on class struggle and its link to social change was mapped to some extent by AFAQ H.2.7 “Who do anarchists see as their “agents of social change”?” (link here: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/the-anarchist-faq-editorial-collective-an-anarchist-faq-09-17#toc17 ). I think this answer needs to be completed and made more actual (a large part has to do with establishing that Bakunin did indeed want the IWA to be a mass organisation of most of the proletariat. Establishing historical facts is good, but I think it is fair to say that is no longer the case of most anarchists, as it is no longer even the case of all members of the IWA afaik).

After this discussion, we will expose briefly the value critique view on the proletariat, class struggle and social change. To simplify, class struggle exists, it is often good, but it does not necessarily lead to emancipation for all, we need to emancipate ourselves not only as workers in the capitalist mode of production, but also as subjects in commodity society.

Eventually, I hope to show that both positions, if not identical, have a certain number of things in common.

Queering Anarchism

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I thought about writing a review of this, but I don’t really have enough to say. Besides, I mention it in the review of Quiet Rumours (they even have collaborators in common). So have a cat instead. Any comments on it are welcome though!

Turns out people apparently find this blog searching for this book, so I feel like I need to say a bit more about it. First of all, its goal is laudable, to bring together queer politics and anarchism. The anarchist discourse on issues on LGBT issues nowadays is often influenced by liberal identity politics, usually because anarchists don’t realise there are more options than liberalism or conservatism. This intellectual laziness is not excusable, especially with such books available. Queering anarchism is not an academic book, it is easily accessible, and at the same time, it does not appear to dumb down issues. In that sense it follows the best tradition of anarchist writers (on them, the quote by Bakunin about destruction and creation appears countless times, and the other references are Emma Goldman… a little variety could have been good).

The only thing that I would say this book is missing is perhaps a few contradictions. Most of these texts (especially in the first half of the book) are so similar that it left me thinking that organizing them into a book rather than a collection of essays would have made more sense (having shorter, independent texts to distribute is good, but that’s what the internet is for). Also there needs to be a disclaimer that this Queering Anarchism is very much about the English-speaking world (our very own Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh gets a mention!), with no text translated from any other language. In this sense, it does demand to be expanded!

Personally, the text I had most difficulties with was Harm Reduction as Pleasure Activism, because its mention of Dionysus cults is too vague to be of any use, and it fails to give any space to anti-alcohol anarchist campaigns (especially in Spain at the start of the 20th century), which would have been interesting to contrast. It is interesting to point out how anarchism and harm reduction converge, but it would also have been interesting to see how they historically diverged.

Also, here is a link to order it: http://www.akpress.org/queeringanarchism.html

Some people are bound to ask ‘But, what about the class struggle?’ Well, one article is all about its importance, which will rejoice or reassure them: the queers will not take your proletariat away.

A review of Quiet Rumours: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader, by the Dark Star Collective

When I received this book, I was quite excited, as it is something that was missing in my library. An international anarcha-feminist congress is planned for 2014, and to make it happen and make it as good as it can be, we need to publish and read this kind of anthologies. The texts chosen are of varying relevance and quality, to be honest, and I get the impression that, in the successive reeditions of this book, members of the Collective were more inclined to add to it than maybe drop or replace articles, the politics of which can be sometimes slightly cringe-worthy: Peggy Kornegger’s “Anarchism: The Feminist Connection” presents a vision of Spain 36 and France 68 that fails to show any criticism (even about talking about the maintenance of wages and money) which belongs more to enthusiastic propaganda than to anarchist theory. She also writes gems like:

“As women, we are particularly well-suited for participation in this process. Underground for ages, we have learnt to be covert, subtle, sly, silent, tenacious, acutely sensitive, and expert at communication skills.”

I must have missed that memo about the women’s underground training-sessions, because I must say I lack some of these qualities. And uniting feminism and anarchism is a necessary undertaking, but one which can also lead to statements about “structure (in the old male up/down sense of the word)” if not careful. Fortunately, human groups, even males, even in olden days, have been able to think up and establish horizontal social relationships. This article does present some interesting points, but maybe would require a more hands-on approach to editing, with some disclaimer/introduction, so that people do not associate anarcha-feminism with these rather anecdotic quotes which stand out from the article by their sheer weirdness. However, I also understand the point of view that people who would pick on this to strawman anarcha-feminism as a whole are probably not the kind of people we should be spending much time and effort into taking on board to develop any kind of theory. However, when you compare it to Queering Anarchism, which has a lot in parallel to this anthology, it is hard not to feel underwhelmed by such discordant ‘details’ (but then I would say that I found the first half of Queering Anarchism suspiciously homogeneous, so you can’t win with me…)

It is not a matter of ‘dropping the old texts’ at all, as some of the oldest contributions are among the best, in my humble opinion. Emma Goldmann got many things right (as a side note, for fans of Emma Goldmann, she makes an appearance in J. Edgar, an otherwise quite boring movie).