Politics & Society » Political Ideologies

The best books on Anarchism

recommended by Ruth Kinna

Sometimes vilified, often misunderstood, rarely taught in universities, anarchism is a political philosophy and social movement that's far removed from today's mainstream politics. But it was and remains a powerful motivator. Political theorist Ruth Kinna talks us through the best books to read to get a better understanding of anarchism.

  • 1

    'Anarchism', in the Encyclopaedia Britannica
    by Peter Kropotkin

  • 2

    Gates of Freedom: Voltairine de Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind
    by Eugenia C. DeLamotte

  • 3

    The Slavery of Our Times
    by Leo Tolstoy

  • 4

    Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader
    by Chris Wilbert, Colin Ward & Damian F. White

  • 5

    Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940
    by Lucien van der Walt & Steven Hirsch

Sometimes vilified, often misunderstood, rarely taught in universities, anarchism is a political philosophy and social movement that's far removed from today's mainstream politics. But it was and remains a powerful motivator. Political theorist Ruth Kinna talks us through the best books to read to get a better understanding of anarchism.

Ruth Kinna

Ruth Kinna is a professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University, working in the Department of Politics, History and International Relations. She works on the history of ideas, specialising in nineteenth and early twentieth-century socialist thought and in contemporary radical politics, particularly anarchism. She has been editor of the journal Anarchist Studies since 2007. She has been a regular contributor to the London-based STRIKE! Magazine, and a discussant on BBC Radio 4’s Ideas in Our Time and BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves.

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To start with, can you try to give us your own definition of anarchism?

It’s always tricky. I think anarchism describes a set of practices; it describes politics; it also describes a tradition, and within that tradition there is a set of cultures. It is a bounded political movement, but it’s defined by the way that its advocates, those who call themselves anarchists, engage with those traditions and cultures, and change their practices over time.

It’s possibly the political theory burdened by the most misconceptions, and the greatest contrast between how it’s defined by theorists, and what a random person on the street would think when they hear the word ‘anarchy.’ Why do you think that is?

It’s very difficult for people who come from other kinds of politics, within the mainstream, to make sense of anarchism. Most of the ways we think about our institutions, constitutions and political organisations are framed in a particular way: at a minimum, the theoretical premise is that we need some kind of structure in order to make citizens compliant and to make us cooperate. Anarchists start from a very different foundation: that we naturally cooperate. It may be in a very sociable way, in the sense that we have friendly relations, or it might mean in a thinner way, that we can cooperate despite our anxieties, antagonisms, and conflicts. And anarchists think that it is through this cooperation that we will build our institutions.

It’s very difficult for political theorists to think about anarchism in any other way than negative, because it seems to contradict everything that politics is based on: the idea that we need a constructed and defined order, and that we can’t coordinate our actions unless somebody helps us do it. Anarchists come along with the idea that anarchy is order, and what exists is disorder. That frightens people. And the way that the anarchist movement emerges in the post-French and post-American revolutionary context makes it look as if they’re much more threatening than other critical groups, because they’re not playing by the rules of the game.

The early history of anarchist practice gets caught up in this: when anarchists react to the repressive force that’s used against them in the late 19th century, they get into those cycles of violence and gain a reputation for being the very thing that they say they’re not. It becomes easy to point to evidence that anarchists are these terroristic, aggressive, destructive, nihilistic individuals, simply because you can point to various assassins and groups who argue for violent means in order to overthrow existing institutions. The image is quite powerful, and becomes almost romantic in a way. It attracts a lot of attention in literature, and later in films, which helps perpetuate it. It becomes very difficult for anarchists to get away from it; but they also sometimes play with it.

Is this why it has become rare to hear people, especially public intellectuals, describing themselves as anarchists? While socialism and communism, despite their equally tainted history, seem to still have many people openly supporting them?

There are still public intellectuals who label themselves as anarchists; Noam Chomsky is one of them, or Naomi Klein—who I’m not sure has said that she is anarchist, but has clearly expressed views that are anarchistic. She talks about anarchist movements, endorses anarchist practices. So there are people who call themselves anarchist. There are also certainly social movements which call themselves anarchist, or labour organisations that are full of people who call themselves anarchists, even though the union doesn’t call itself that. The Industrial Workers of the World, for example, is essentially an anarchist union in terms of its membership, even if it doesn’t sign up to a particular ideology. Certainly since the rise of the social justice movement in the late 1990s, there has been a much greater sense in which the grassroots Left is defined by anarchist ideas. There’s a huge literature now on anarchism; there are publishers and cooperative movements that call themselves anarchist. So it is there, it exists, but you’re right that it doesn’t exist very publicly, at least not in the mainstream.

How did you become interested in the subject?

When I was an undergraduate student. I had never came across anarchism before that. Virtually everything was defined by Marxism, in one way or another. All the literature was about determining what kind of Marxist you were. Some unusual courses were starting to come into universities, like feminism. I became interested in that, but I didn’t identify with any of the Marxist groups that were active within the university.

Then, I did a couple of courses. One was on modern Spain, it looked at the origins and the outbreak of the Spanish civil war and revolution. That’s when I first came across the anarchist movement, and I had never seen anything like it. I was encouraged to think about the dilemma that the anarchist movement faced within the Spanish context: do you fight for a revolution, or do you compromise the revolution in order to fight off a fascist regime? I was introduced to some of the anarchist answers to that dilemma, and that’s when I started reading anarchist literature.

“Kropotkin liked to quote the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, saying: ‘Take a box of stones and shake them, and they’ll organise themselves.’”

Most of my interest was in political ideas and political theory so before that, I had done the conventional Machiavelli-to-Marx course, but in my final year I took an optional course on political thoughts and texts. It was run by a man called William J. Fishman, who had been teaching it for many years, and he was an anarchist. He was friends with Fermin Rocker, who was the son of the anarcho-syndicalist theorist and activist Rudolf Rocker, who was also a Jewish labour organiser in East London. The course was a critique of socialist and Leninist politics. We looked at all sorts of literature that I had never heard of. That’s when I was introduced to Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. I started going to the Freedom Bookshop and buying those books, and gradually I became hooked. I then got the opportunity to carry on studying it, and I decided to find out more.

I think it’s still very much the case today: I studied political theory ten years ago, and although we did learn about socialist thinkers and briefly mentioned Proudhon, I don’t think we ever read Kropotkin or Bakunin.

It’s also because anarchists are not regarded as great theorists. They play with some incredibly complex ideas and they engage with a lot of mainstream political theory, including Rousseau, Hobbes, Marx, Machiavelli… But anarchists tend to be essayists, so there’s no single great work that you can easily point to, and say that it’s the essence of the theory. There’s no Das Kapital, no Communist Manifesto. That makes it very difficult to insert into a curriculum. Because not only do you need to think very differently and challenge all of your inherited ideas to see where anarchists are coming from, but there’s no single clear text to do it. And some of them are easy to ridicule: Bakunin wrote those long, unstructured, unedited discourses; it’s very easy to say that it lacks rigour, that it’s just a rant. But I think that’s a mistake.

Since you mentioned him, let’s start talking about your first choice, which is Peter Kropotkin’s (1842-1921) entry on anarchism in the Encyclopædia Britannica, published in 1911. Do you know how he got invited to write this article?

I’m not sure who invited him but, by 1911, Kropotkin was certainly quite established within literary circles. He was exiled from Russia, and spent the first part of his exile in Switzerland and France, where he was sent to prison. There was a big campaign to get him released, and he came to England in the early 1880s. He was known as a geographer, a scientist, and an aristocrat. There was certainly a negative press against him, but he also had a bedrock of support, and he was well integrated in some literary circles. So it’s not surprising that he would have been asked to write something on anarchism for the Britannica. Of course I can’t imagine someone like him being invited to write an encyclopedic article now. It can seem odd, but really the early 20th century was a different time, and they simply thought of him as an expert.

There had already been a couple of books published on anarchism, one by the Austrian journalist Ernst Viktor Zenker, and another famous one by the German law professor Paul Eltzbacher. So anarchism was getting coverage, people were trying to work out what it meant. In his article, Kropotkin also mentions Leo Tolstoy, who by that time had already done a lot to promote anarchist ideas, even though he didn’t call himself an anarchist. So these ideas were circulating, and being taken seriously in some quarters.

Kropotkin’s article, and I guess that’s why it was your first choice, gives a long and precise definition of everything that anarchism is and could be. His very first sentence defines it as “The name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.” Later on he calls anarchism the “left wing of socialism”. Do you think that’s a good way of summarising it?

For a long time I thought this entry on anarchism in the Britannica was quite dull. I always preferred his shorter and earlier essays; his Appeal To The Young is a fantastic piece of writing. But the more I read the entry, the better I think it is. In a way, the whole article is a definition, and he looks at anarchism from many different perspectives. He starts off with this idea that anarchism is about free agreement, and he tries to unpack what ‘free agreement’ means. It’s not a contract, it’s any kind of accord that you enter into voluntarily; it’s a very liberal idea, in a way. But he takes away any kind of authority from it, by saying that free agreement can only come from the bottom, and through negotiation with your fellow beings, with whom you live and you share outlooks.

Free agreement is what defines your politics, and it’s linked theoretically to ideas of fluidity and flux. In anarchy there’s no such thing as a final accord, or a set of rules against which we judge everything else. It’s a process we enter into. That’s the starting point. He then explains that this idea has been around forever: we can see it in the Greeks, in ancient Chinese thought, it’s everywhere. It was crystallised in the modern day through the organisation of the First International. From the 1860s onwards, we see a political movement we can call anarchist, which is taking this timeless idea of fluidity, flux and free agreement, and putting it within the particular context of the struggle of workers against exploiters. He also talks about masters and slaves, and domination.

In this sense he says that you can put anarchism on the left of socialism, because anarchists are not people who simply want to take control of the government and use its instruments in order to bring about equality; they want to completely abolish this system that imposes sets of rules and regulations that you must always judge your practice against. That’s why it’s on the left.

As Kropotkin goes through the history of the concept, he talks about the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Citium, he mentions the Middle Ages, but he explains that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was really the first anarchist. Would you agree with that?

One of the things I like about this essay is that Kropotkin tries to distinguish the concept of ‘anarchy’ from the ideology of ‘anarchism’. There is a resistance politics and there’s an idea, based on the assertion of individual sovereignty, that admits that people are born into a social context, but that ultimately, any decision that they make must revert back to them. Proudhon is important because he’s the first person to use the concept that everybody fears, anarchy, and define it positively. In doing so, he establishes the springboard for the anarchist movement. For him, anarchy is not, as conventional thought would have it, the corruption of democracy, it’s something that we should embrace wholeheartedly. That’s a huge statement to make.

Kropotkin does a great job of asking what anarchy means, in terms of freedom, fluidity and change. And when Proudhon calls himself an anarchist, that’s exactly what he’s talking about: the flow of free forces, and the way in which people interact without third-party intervention. Kropotkin liked to quote the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, saying: “Take a box of stones and shake them, and they’ll organise themselves.”

You mentioned Hobbes and Rousseau earlier. In a way, do anarchists fundamentally think that human beings are good by nature, and that they will behave positively even without constraints and rules?

When anarchists say that individuals cooperate, they don’t mean that they’re necessarily good, just that they’re cooperative. Their critique of both Hobbes and Rousseau is that in their thought experiments, people are alone. And their isolation sets the conditions for their survival. It means that they end up competing with one another. But there are no conditions in the world where people are alone. Anarchists say that when people find themselves living in conditions where there are limited resources, their best option is to cooperate, because you can provide much more through collaboration than as a single person. And cooperation will breed its own rules; it’s not for anybody outside this framework to judge what the rules should be. The rules will change over time, and people will adopt new practices, but they will always be cooperative.

Let’s quickly discuss “Property is theft”, Proudhon’s – and potentially anarchism’s – most famous quote, but maybe also the most misconstrued. What did he mean by that?

Proudhon distinguishes between two types of property: property in use, and property as dominion. When he says that property is theft, he’s talking about the constitutional right to exclusive ownership. If the constitution upholds somebody’s right to exclusively possess land, labour, or anything, then that necessarily sets up an inequality, because we have limited resources. Some people will become owners, and others will be dispossessed as a result. The insight here is that there is no moral basis for individual ownership. In the world, everything belongs to everybody in common; you have to invent a principle to justify why I should have more than you. And as soon as you do that, Proudhon says, you deprive everybody else of ownership. The dispossessed become reliant on the owners for everything, to maintain their well-being and subsistence. And although they work and produce, they have to give up most of it to somebody else. That’s the theft. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t possess something; people often ask, ‘Can I still call this my toothbrush?’ Yes, you can!

Another aspect that Kropotkin mentions, because it is part of the anarchist landscape, is the individualist tradition of German philosopher Max Stirner. It’s very much alive today in ideologies like anarcho-capitalism. Do a lot of people call themselves anarchists without being from the Left?

Max Stirner has come back into vogue, largely through the work of people like the British political theorist Saul Newman on post-anarchism. Stirner has always been problematic for socialist anarchists; in the United States, he and other individualist anarchist thinkers have been taken up by anarcho-capitalists, and minimal-state right-wing libertarians. So it looks as if there’s an overlap, which socialist anarchists always deny.

Kropotkin’s treatment of Stirner is really interesting; he’s very positive about him, as he is about Friedrich Nietzsche. He says that they produced fantastic, incredibly inspiring literature. Stirner’s big idea is that you should not have to subordinate yourself to some greater ideal which is not of your own making. In The Ego and His Own, he explains how individuals are coerced into accepting certain principles by groups who say that they have a programme which will deliver for humanity. But he asks: what’s humanity? And why should I accept constraints in order to deliver this programme that you claim will benefit everybody? At some point he writes that the French Revolution started off by declaring the rights of man, and ended up chopping off the heads of men. The corruption is something we need to be aware of. Kropotkin would be fully signed up to that. The fact that he also says that anarchy is about recognising the individual’s sovereignty, is a statement about the importance of each of us as an individual.

“Anarchism isn’t just a phenomenon of the past… it continues to resonate in the present.”

But the difference between them is that Stirner abstracts the individual from any kind of social context, and in doing so then sees any kind of social arrangement as a constraint. Kropotkin says that you can’t extract us from our social context, and that means you should think about how you can organise social relations in ways that allow individuals to challenge norms, traditions, habits, customs. The mistake that Stirner makes is to say, ‘theoretically, I’ll abstract the individual from the social context; and normatively, I’ll therefore assert the right of the individual to realise any end, against anybody else.’ That, Kropotkin says, is problematic, because it’s aristocratic, competitive, and likely to end up in an inequality based on ‘might is right.’ It has no regard for the wellbeing of less able, less capable, less powerful, or simply different people who don’t want to live in that way. Ethically, that’s a fundamental difference between a socialist like Kropotkin, and individualists like Stirner.

Having said that, I don’t think that just because anarcho-capitalists claim his heritage, it should lead us to say that all of his ideas are necessarily tainted. For example, I think Stirner had some very interesting things to say about education.

That’s a great transition to your second choice, a book by Eugenia C. DeLamotte about somebody else who started off as an individualist anarchist: Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912). Who was she, and what did she write about?

She was an American writer, as well as a poet, but she came into the anarchist movement as a freethinker initially. She was called Voltairine by her father, after the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. She’s brought up in a tradition of free thought, and her anarchism bears some of the hallmarks: she criticises the Church, she reads Thomas Paine, she’s immersed in an American republican tradition. She starts off as an educator in Philadelphia, but for her and many other anarchists at the time, there’s a major turning point with the execution of the Haymarket anarchists in 1887.

The 1880s in America, particularly in Chicago, was a period of intensive labour struggle. Workers were campaigning for the 8-hour day, organising big labour protests, and these were put down with incredible violence by private Pinkerton armies, which employers hired and deployed against workers. Anarchist groups were very active in Chicago. There had been an influx of German immigrants wanting to escape the Old World and to find space for themselves in the New, only to discover that they weren’t that different in terms of repression. A lot of them had been through the Paris Commune and the unification of Germany; they had seen the rise of the State, and the ways in which education was being extended in nefarious ways. They came into an American context and discovered that America was not the “land of the free.” So they started organising themselves, particularly around the 8-hour-day movement.

A demonstration took place in Haymarket Square in 1886 in Chicago. A bomb was thrown and several people were killed. But the key event is what happened after the demonstration: a number of anarchists were rounded up, simply because they were anarchists. They were put on trial; the jury was fixed, the process was utterly unfair, everybody could see that it was a corrupt trial, as there was no particular evidence against the accused men. One of the significant features of the trial is that the anarchists were given space to defend themselves, and what they did was give long statements to justify their anarchist beliefs. Albert Parsons, who was regarded as the most articulate of the men put on trial, gave an address to the jury that lasted for eight hours. These are incredibly powerful statements.

There was a long series of appeals, and the trial became an international cause célèbre at the time, but eventually five were sentenced to death. One killed himself before the execution, and the other four were hanged. Some years later the verdict was quashed, the trial was recognised as utterly corrupt and unfair, but by this point the example of the Haymarket anarchists had become one the rallying cries for the early anarchist movement. Just at the time where anarchism was beginning to define itself against other forms of socialism, notably Marxist socialism, anarchists had a series of people they could identify with, statements that explained what anarchism was, and an annual celebration that brought people together. All of these things contributed to define the anarchist position.

So from these events, Voltairine de Cleyre started to see herself as part of the movement. She took up the anarchist cause, not only in her everyday life, but also by writing essays, coming out for the Mexican revolution, and denouncing American colonial domination. Another reason I chose her is that she writes about what anarchism means for everyday social relations; she writes a series about what she calls ‘sex slavery’, and the question of marriage. She doesn’t call herself a feminist, because at that point feminism is mostly associated with women struggling for the right to vote; but she’s one of the most powerful voices for what would now be called anarchist feminism.

Was she, like her contemporary Emma Goldman, advocating against women struggling for suffrage?

Their general view was that the suffrage campaign was a pointless struggle. The anarchists had already had this argument with the Marxist social democrats, in the context of workers’ emancipation. They’d already established the general position that you can’t win power by contesting elections in representative institutions, because you will be sucked up by that power. You can’t make fundamental changes by entering into these institutions, because the institutions themselves are constituted in ways that limit your sphere of action. So the only thing that you can do is work outside them. The anarchist women, including de Cleyre and Goldman, make the same argument, by basically saying: you can struggle for the vote, or for certain rights, like going to university, but fundamentally that will not alter the dependency that exists within the system, through marriage laws, and your structural subordination to men. You have to fight that on the ground.

In her essay called Direct Action, de Cleyre writes that the difference between anarchists and the people struggling for suffrage is that they’re using anarchist tactics, but only instrumentally. They’re not actually signed up to self-liberation, but only to protesting. She doesn’t deprecate suffrage campaigners, but she says that the only way you can really secure your rights is by continually using direct action, on a daily basis. In the essay “The Gates of Freedom” she writes: “They have rights who dare maintain them.” We can judge social systems by the rights that they grant to people, but in the end, the value of rights lies in the challenge the oppressed make in struggling for justice, not in settling for a set of arrangements.

You mentioned that de Cleyre started as a freethinker, and that she tried to criticise many social constructs, including marriage, religion, beauty, sexuality, with this idea of refusing popular opinion and preconceived notions. In this sense she seems to follow in the steps of John Stuart Mill, and his idea that there is an intrinsic benefit in allowing free thought to exist, never ceasing to call into question the way we live, and choosing voluntarily whether we want to keep things the way they are.

It’s interesting you mention John Stuart Mill, because like Mill, Voltairine de Cleyre was inspired by English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. They both took that republican rejection of domination as a touchstone for their politics. If you think about tyranny, and the ways in which mastership works to make people servile, to subdue them and limit their imagination, there’s a commonality between what de Cleyre is saying and what Mill says in On Liberty, about encouraging diversity and letting people think differently, pursue their own interests and desires, follow their paths. This pursuit becomes anarchistic when it pushes in a certain direction. If your principle says, ‘Let’s follow any kind of desire and see where it takes us,’ it’s different from the anarchist rejection of exploitation and domination. Free thought is important, but not everything goes—as it doesn’t for Mill either. There’s an ethics.

Later in her life, she ended up calling herself an “anarchist without adjectives”, which brings us to the subject of the many “adjectives” that come with anarchism. Do you think that’s in part because of this pursuit of free thinking that anarchism is a political theory with so many subgroups?

The argument itself comes after a shift within anarchism, which Kropotkin is part of, but also Errico Malatesta and other Italian anarchists. After the break up of the First International, the anarchists start to organise separately. Many anarchists have come from Proudhonist and Bakuninist traditions, and the dominant affiliation at the time is what’s called collectivism, which was then increasingly understood as a principle of distribution according to work.

Kropotkin’s argument was that this is problematic, because it implies some kind of property, and he thinks that if anarchists want to be consistent, they need to call themselves communists. He and others fought against the idea of communism that extends from the French Revolution, where communism is understood as a system of government, highly-centralised and planned, inherited from Jacobinism through people like Gracchus Babeuf and other utopians. Kropotkin basically says that communism is just a principle of distribution according to need and that this is the most secure foundation for anarchy because it inhibits the emergence of economic inequalities and domination.

As the movement shifts and Kropotkin wins the argument, communism became the prevailing strand within anarchism. But there were groups on the ground, particularly in Spain where Bakuninist traditions were deeply rooted , that ask: ‘Why should you be the one who tells us how we should organise our affairs? Actually, it may be that we do want to recognise some type of property. As anarchists, we should have the flexibility to determine this on the ground.’ So a movement develops within Spanish anarchism, which says that to be consistent revolutionaries, the people should be allowed to determine all their relations, including economic ones. Rather than calling themselves communists or collectivists they call themselves “anarchists without adjectives”. Voltairine de Cleyre agreed.

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The reason that so many subgroups appear – like eco-anarchism, anarcha-feminism, anarcho-syndicalism – is because the movement tends to develop through its practices, and with changes in political conditions. After anarchism appears on the scene, it’s possible to attach the label to any specific problem or campaign, such as patriarchy, economic sustainability, degrowth, etc. In any group, one can take a more or less anarchist view. People call themselves eco-anarchists within the environmental movement to express a rejection of hierarchy. In doing so, they’re picking up bits of the anarchist tradition. It all makes for a kind of family, and it helps to build a common ground.

Do you think it can make anarchism confusing when you approach those ideas for the first time, and you discover all those subgroups and movements?

Possibly, but if you think about other traditions like Marxism, you could also be a Stalinist, a Leninist, a Trotskyist, a Lukácsist, etc. But they have names, which somehow makes it more accessible.

Your third choice was the essay The Slavery of Our Times by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). He was often labelled as a Christian anarchist—yet another adjective—but as you mentioned earlier he never called himself that.

That’s right, but he was taken up by anarchists globally. He’s the most translated anarchist in China and Japan, for example, and had a big influence on Mahatma Gandhi in India.

Historically, what has been the relationship between anarchism and religion? Intuitively you’d expect a very hostile approach, given the Church’s history of domination.

Indeed it’s very problematic. Certainly in Europe, and especially in places like France and Spain with a strong Catholic church, the anarchist movement has traditionally been anti-clerical and hostile to religious control over society, particularly in education. It’s in Spain that Francisco Ferrer tried to set up his Escola Moderna in contravention of the church.

However, within that, the argument that people like Bakunin put forward is that it’s not so much about the church itself, but the ways in which certain ideas about human wickedness and incapability are being structured into our ways of thinking. And that’s not just done by the church, but also by statists. Secular politics usually works by the same logic as the church: people need to be perfected, and they can only be perfected by ethical institutions. Bakunin called this political theology.

If you’re against political theology, you’re likely an anti-cleric, but it’s possible to imagine religious practice without theology. I think that’s really where anarchists, and where Tolstoy is. His faith is not based on the imposition of external rules. In The Slavery of Our Times, he writes that you can’t have free agreement if you’re constantly being threatened by some kind of punishment, in this world or the afterlife. Faith is about mobilising what’s good in you and others in order to live a better life.

Undoubtedly some anarchists would say that they can’t accept that, because it admits the idea of a divinity, which is against their principles. But I think there’s room within anarchism for faith. Certainly within contemporary anarchist movements, especially the ones interested in decolonising and finding solidarity with indigenous groups, there’s much more latitude for thinking about different belief systems and ways in which they can intersect, overlap, and still find resonance with anarchist practice.

The book itself is a pamphlet about Tolstoy’s views on the situation of workers in the 19th century, what should be done about it, and why we can’t trust the state to do those things. He starts with several descriptions of men and women working terribly long hours, sometimes 36 hours in a row for almost no money, and living in overcrowded, unhealthy lodgings. Even though things are still very bad for many people around the world today, working conditions in Europe have improved substantially since then. Do you think that anarchism had its Golden Age in the 19th century for those reasons, but that it’s become harder to mobilise masses against the state system since living conditions have generally improved?

It’s easy to be seduced into thinking that these kinds of hardships don’t exist. At some point Tolstoy writes that we’re ‘hypnotised.’ And he also says that we’re being ‘bought off’ by the goods that have become available to us. To him, one of the flaws of socialism is to think that all we need to do is take control of the means of production, and everybody can have all the rich have now. Tolstoy thinks that’s a ridiculous thing to say; if you really want to live an anarchist life, you’ll have to get used to living very differently and within your means. For us today, it might be living within our ecological means; for Tolstoy he was thinking of what was available in a rural society through local production.

We’ve got a lot of precarity now, and different kinds of problems to the ones Tolstoy knew in his time: anxiety, depression, stress, boredom, delinquency, and all those things that subsequent anarchists talk about, like Paul Goodman in the 1960s. Those are still conditions of slavery. Tolstoy says it’s not just a metaphor; this is going on. Scratch the surface and it’s there. And you won’t get rid of it as long as you don’t change the fundamental ways in which we live. One of the reasons I chose the essay is because of the way he sets it up as a story. You’re taken into this conversation between workers, and you can still imagine that happening in a different context today.

Do you think that the bullshit jobs that David Graeber—another example of a contemporary anarchist intellectual—writes about, would be a modern form of slavery? In the sense that the purpose of your daily work is taken away from you?

Slavery is the relationship that forces you to work for subsistence. Tolstoy lives at a time where slavery in America has been abolished, and twenty million serfs have been emancipated in Russia. And yet he says: it’s all an illusion. There’s no real freedom. The emancipated serfs have been forced to take on debt, in order to serve the masters who used to own them outright. That’s exactly what David Graeber argues: debt is the basis on which we are enslaved. Tolstoy asks what the difference is between ‘slave John’ who used to be forced to clean out the cesspit for his master, and ‘worker John’ who, on the basis of a free contract, can refuse to clean out the cesspit of his employer, but whose place can be taken by any number of workers who are ready to do the work. It’s still a relationship of slavery, based on domination. What’s changed is the principle of the ownership.

Your fourth book is Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility, a collection of writings by British anarchist Colin Ward (1924-2010). He was considered one of the great anarchist thinkers of the 20th century.

Colin Ward started reading anarchist literature towards the tail end of World War II; he wasn’t a conscientious objector. He was called to give evidence when anarchists had been put on trial for sedition, because he had himself read this pamphlet that was supposed to be seditious. That was his entry into anarchism. For ten years he edited the journal Anarchy, and he became the leading voice of what he sometimes called pragmatic anarchism. He was interested in thinking about how, in a different post-War world, the ideas of historical anarchists could still be applied and used constructively through social policy and the institutions that we have, to ‘anarchise’ society. That was his real contribution.

“When Proudhon says that property is theft, he’s talking about the constitutional right to exclusive ownership”

He was a self-educated, incredibly well-read man, with a background in local planning. A lot of what he says straddles politics, sociology, and urban planning. There’s a slightly nostalgic feel about some of his writings. He writes about England in a way that few people have since George Orwell; a place that has been created by grassroots communal action. He’s not talking about activist movements, but about people who, in their everyday lives, behave in ways that expand the field of liberty, against authority and central control.

Colin Ward passed away in 2010. How would you describe the anarchist movement since then, in the 21st century? Where can you find it? Is it in the many social movements that have marked the 2010s?

Many social movement analysts would tell you that social justice groups, movements for taking the squares, Occupy, all of these big movements in recent years have been anarchistic. Occupy in particular, insofar as Wall Street kickstarted a global movement, had anarchists directly involved in it, including David Graeber. There are many of those fragmented social groups, but anarchism is also made of the people who take the opportunities as they see them: squatters’ movements, precarious workers, indigenous people, no-border movements, feminists, etc. I would say that today anarchism is the animating force, in the way that when I was an undergraduate, Marxism was the animating force. The ideas of leaderlessness, mutual aid, horizontalism, are standards of most forms of activism these days, and they come from an anarchist inspiration.

One of the oft-debated aspects of anarchism today, especially in mainstream media, are its most radical sections, like the black bloc groups or the Invisible Committee in France. Are they the remnants of anarchists who still hope for a revolution?

I think the idea of revolution is probably less prominent today than at any other time in the past. In a sense that’s a shame, because the concept of revolution has sometimes been read back into historical movements to discredit them. If you look at the ways in which people like Voltairine de Cleyre thought about revolution, it’s not necessarily about barricades.

I’m not sure that people who enter into black bloc groups think of themselves as revolutionaries. There’s certainly a culture within black bloc groups, but it’s not defined by violence as such, but by anger, resistance, and a particular idea of what protest involves. It’s always easy to look at the headline event, and think that those people are just irrational crazies. The great thing about black bloc is that anyone can be a black bloc, and nobody will know. You join a set of people and you feel the strength of that, without anybody orchestrating it.

This makes me think of Anonymous, another movement that has sometimes been labelled an anarchistic in recent years. It’s probably more difficult to assert that, because many different people have taken part in it, with a wide range of political views. But do you think that the means that they use, and the leaderless form that the movement takes, has at least an anarchistic element to it?

It does have an anarchistic element, and it’s interesting because within Anonymous too, there have been arguments about the ethics of what is being done, and the extent to which actions have to be correctly targeted and well conceived. Again, groups can be anarchistic in form, but more or less anarchistic within them.

Finally, your fifth choice is a more recent academic book by researchers Steven Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt: Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World. Why did you choose this as an important read?

I wanted to show the breadth of anarchism, and of the work that’s now being done on it. This is an incredibly important book, in terms of correcting some of the myths about anarchism as a movement that schematically had its glory in Spain, was crushed, came back in 1968, and constantly goes through these waves. One of the very persuasive arguments that they make is that it’s problematic to perceive anarchism like this within a European context, but it’s definitely misleading and incorrect if you look at anarchism in a global context. They’re interested not only in highlighting areas of the world outside Europe where anarchism had a huge presence in both urban and rural movements, but also in building up a picture of the networks through which anarchism has operated.

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If you read this book, you’ll get a much better idea of how small groups, and sometimes handfuls of individuals, actually built significant movements in areas where perhaps people don’t normally think that anarchism had any presence. Argentina, Cuba, China, Egypt, South Africa, are all mentioned and studied. This is a network of labour movements that were feeding from common ideas, and organising in local contexts to fight local struggles in particular ways. In this way it’s possible to see anarchism as a much more significant force for change than is typical in Europe today. Anarchism isn’t just a phenomenon of the past; the book shows how it continues to resonate in the present.

Beyond Spain in the early 20th century, have there been other places in the world where anarchism has been tried?

The example that people are talking about now is Rojava, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, where the ideas of American social theorist Murray Bookchin have been taken up to think about alternative, non-state relationships within an incredibly diverse ethnic population. It’s in a similar situation as Spain in a sense, because there are so many enemies of this revolution that it has its back against the wall. But, nevertheless, it has worked. It has an incredibly dynamic feminist strand within it, it’s horizontalist, it’s complicated, it’s anarchist.

It’s always tricky to talk about examples, because although these instances and moments are important, one of the points that Hirsch and van der Walt make is that what anarchism really does is maintain a constant pressure on the ground, to organise struggles and movements differently. These local movements were a deliberate attempt to maintain the power within the collective, and not give it up for a set of deals with politicians, particularly for worker groups. It’s a much broader type of struggle, one which takes into account the ways in which the local communities of those workers need to operate, and want to operate.

Do you think that as with other movements like gender studies or feminism, it’s taken a long time for anarchism to recognise things that happened outside of Europe and the United States?

Yes, it has, and it’s partly because of the way academic study works. It’s difficult to find a space for anarchism within a university system, and the few people who have the privilege to work on those issues are more likely to first look at their own movements. There have been local studies of anarchist movements for a long time, but what’s unusual about this book is that it not only thinks about different national histories, but also about transnational movements. The group of multilingual scholars who wrote it were able to share their experiences and understandings to build up a picture of what anarchism is throughout the world. And it makes sense, because in a way, how can you understand a movement that wants to abolish borders and states, if not globally?

Interview by Edouard Mathieu

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Ruth Kinna

Ruth Kinna is a professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University, working in the Department of Politics, History and International Relations. She works on the history of ideas, specialising in nineteenth and early twentieth-century socialist thought and in contemporary radical politics, particularly anarchism. She has been editor of the journal Anarchist Studies since 2007. She has been a regular contributor to the London-based STRIKE! Magazine, and a discussant on BBC Radio 4’s Ideas in Our Time and BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves.