An Anarchist FAQ: Vol. 1May 11th, 2011
A lot of readers rightly complain at the cost of specialist books, especially those without access to university libraries or research budgets. At well over 550 double-columned pages, amounting to half a million words, the Anarchist FAQ delivers value for money. The Anarchist FAQ started as an internet resource, produced by volunteers from many continents, but its primary contributor and editor is Iain McKay. This gigantic first volume provides a huge amount of well-sourced material to assist a general reader or researcher seeking an introduction to many of the main arguments and themes that have engaged, and continue to interest, anarchist scholars and activists.
McKay acknowledges that the FAQ’s approach to anarchism, with which I have the greatest sympathy, is a largely social (class-struggle) account, consistent with the main anarchist movements (pp.1-3). The volume does, however, give space to other variants of anarchism, although these are subject to more intensive critical examination. A particular focus of his critical attention is the misnomer ‘anarcho-capitalism’, which is subjected to a particularly thorough and welcome drubbing (pp.478-547). However, as ‘anarcho-capitalists’ are largely motivated by profit-seeking rather than integrity, logical consistency or morality, McKay’s pertinent arguments are, regrettably, likely to make little direct impact.
Unusually for more recent anarchists, who usually concentrate on the socio-political, historical and ethical, McKay includes a lengthy critical analysis of capitalism as an ideology and socially embodied system of production and exchange (pp.196-357). McKay’s knowledge of Proudhonian economics also informs many other sections of the text, consistent with his underlying general thesis that economics and politics cannot be separated (p.527).
The volume does as much to promote further inquiry as it does to answer initial queries. The sections dealing with the anarchist distinction between nationalism and nationality (pp.403-08), and the relationship between anarchism and ecologism, indicate the richness and depth of much of the classical anarchist canon. These sections also highlight that there are still significant areas for future research: issues relating to gender identity and sexuality, science, technology and technocracy, utopianism, radical aesthetics, the role of public institutions, religion and political epistemology.
There are problems with the text. First and foremost is its size. For something which is supposed to be a resource to answer frequently asked questions about anarchism, it would have been appropriate if there had been a little more editing and careful selection of material. For instance, I doubt many involved in anarchism have ever been asked: ‘Does interest represent the “time value” of money?’ It seems unlikely that people on encountering anarchism ideas and practices for the first time are asking ‘what is wrong with equilibrium analysis?’. The book would benefit from a closer focus on the more ‘frequent’ of the frequently asked questions: are we all bomb-throwers or pacifists? How do we organise non-hierarchically? These might provide more topical or pertinent queries to answer. A second volume is being planned however, and perhaps these questions will be covered in this edition. Already additional appendices on ‘Anarchism and Marxism’ and the ‘Russian Revolution’ are available online, though I wonder whether the latter, in particular, is considered a particularly pressing avenue of enquiry from the generation who have grown up with little or no memory of an ideologically and militarily divided Europe.
A second problem is the lack of index and bibliography. Useful sources are cited, but it takes an enormous amount of patience and very careful reading to track back to the first initial reference, sometimes hidden away a hundred pages earlier. There is a bibliography on the website, but then this does undermine having the hard copy version. An index would also assist the reader to use the volume for their own focus of research.
This volume, like the web-based project, is clearly a labour of love, which might explain the editor’s reluctance to make cuts. Nonetheless, this autonomous research project demonstrates that ventures undertaken on largely anarchist principles can generate research of high use-value. The volume provides helpful analyses and application of key anarchist thinkers from the past (in particular Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin and Michael Bakunin), as well as using pertinent research from more contemporary figures from anarchism and elsewhere. The FAQ is rightly recognised as a considerable achievement and useful contribution for those just encountering anarchist ideas as well as those who wish to expand their knowledge. I heartily recommend it.
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