Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, by George Woodcock

I picked this book up at the used book store because I’ve always been interested in anarchism as a political theory but didn’t know much about its history or philosophy. Plus the book was only a couple bucks.

It was a decent overview of the writings of several of the prominent anarchist philosophers from William Godwin to Proudhon to Kropotkin and Bakunin. It was good to read about the main ideas that each of those figures proposed, and how others of the time reacted to them. And it was historically interesting to read about the different movements spun off from anarchism, from the collectivists to the violent anarchists assassinating government officials to the anarcho-syndicalists trying to usurp the political process for the sake of anarchism. But it did drag on a little bit; when he descended into tracking the anarchist movements of individual countries, I started skipping a lot.

The answers I was looking for were not evident in this book, though. None of the anarchist theorists could articulate a vision of the future that was compelling, or even possible. Kropotkin even explicitly rejected such plans – “Kropotkin accepted the view that society, especially after the social revolution, will never cease growing and changing, and that any exhaustive plans for its future are absurd and harmful attempts by those who live in an unhappy present to dictate how others may live in a happier future.” Later in the book, Woodcock states “Anarchists have been especially conscious of this duality of universal man and particular man, and much of their thought has been devoted to seeking a balance between the claims of general human solidarity and those of the free individual. In particular they have sought to reconcile internationalist ideals – the idea of a world without frontiers or barriers of race – with a stubborn insistence on local autonomy and personal spontaneity.”

This is always the question of anarchy. How does everybody get to do whatever they want and not infringe on each others’ rights? Most anarchists believe strongly in man’s inherent leaning towards social responsibility, but I have less faith in my fellow man than they do. If anything, these questions are magnified in the present age, with an unprecedented interdependence across human society. For my food and possessions and well-being, I’m dependent on thousands of other people scattered across the whole world. In a world of anarchy, how would I ever survive?

I tend to believe that anarchy can only work at small scales, where social feedback mechanisms can operate. Sociologists estimate this size to be 100-150 people, which is small enough such that everybody knows everybody else at least to the level of feeling comfortable saying hi, and small enough for gossip to work effectively. When somebody slacks off in such an environment, people know, and the slacker is shunned in subtle and not-so-subtle ways until they shape up. In larger environments, it is much easier to hide, and much easier to rationalize away socially irresponsible acts.

Anyway, I liked the book. Bogged down a lot in the second half, but overall a worthwhile read.

Oh, and I liked the quote from Thomas Jefferson I quote in my weblog.