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Review of Anarchy Alive! by Alex Prichard, Anarchist Studies 16:1 (2008)
For more info see http://www.anarchyalive.com .It is widely recognised that these are exciting times for anarchist theory. Uri Gordon's book is one of many by the young veterans of the varied anarchist practices of the last ten years (at least) and can only add to this excitement. It is hugely learned and yet easy to read; it is also short and to the point, un-pompous and hugely informative, for the adept or novices in anarchist thought alike. For those with more theory than practice, this book ought to be required reading. In fact, I'd say that not only will it become required reading in the anarchist movement, but it will have a sizeable impact on the academy, (or `anarchademics' (p. 163) - one of a number of neologisms, like `r/evolution', I loved). In short, I believe this will be a defining text in anarchist circles for the next few years at the very least.
But why? What are the virtues of the book and where do they come from (aside from style and length of course)? Let's begin, somewhat conventionally with the introduction. It is short but clear in positioning itself in pedagogic social praxis. It is the product of participant observation and theoretical reflection and it is unashamedly contemporary in terms of both. The book is not designed to contribute to academic debates about the fineries of anarchist theory (though, as I will show, it does), but is designed as a tool for activists trying to understand anarchism, and inadvertently helps theorists see that practice helps us understand theory. The book does this through engaging with some key practical and theoretical conundrums facing the contemporary movement. This makes it something of a user's manual for anarchist activism, written by an engaged and intelligent academic that has seen his fair share of the front line.
The impact of Gordon's Oxford background, particularly the ideas of Michael Freeden who has blazed a trail through the study of ideologies, is clear. Gordon discuses anarchism as a `political culture' or social praxis, ironically simply allowing Gordon to be an anarchist in refusing to reduce ideas to other social, economic or political forces and to see anarchism as a lived plethora or `network' of ideas and practices in social and historical context. Unfortunately Gordon's historical context does not stretch far enough back into the past and so the novelty of contemporary ideas is overplayed. For example, Gordon argues that "the most prominent feature of the new anarchist formulation [...] is the generalisation of the target of anarchist resistance to all forms of domination in society" (p. 30). This presentism is a standard flaw in contemporary anarchist literature. Anarchism has always been about more than just the state and capitalism. Emma Goldman was a feminist, Reclus an ecologist, Landauer and Rocker were concerned with race and ethnicity. Still, this is not to detract from the force of Gordon's work, only to contextualise it within the dominant discursive frameworks set by Marxism as a way of understanding the left's past.
However, the book is not a history of ideas. It is about how anarchist practice can help us understand and develop anarchist theory. Chapter 3 investigates the ongoing issue of power and authority within the anarchist movement and settles a number of debates in unexpectedly clever ways. For example, Gordon argues that democratic participation is not always a good in itself. Rather, the values of democratic practices need to be understood in context. Protesters cannot always be transparent and not everyone wants to take part, so neither democracy nor transparency is a transcendent good. Gordon claims that while both participatory democracy in anarchist communities and consensus are valuable, they are not imposable because "anarchist organising is built on pure voluntarism" (p. 76). The ethic is clear here, but perhaps he overstates this a little. Gordon