Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Book Review - Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward

The following is a book review that appears in aargh! (issue 2, Sept 2014):

THE Chief Librarian at Wellington City Library, Tomasi Lilalia recently said,
When it comes to political stuff, we just don’t know what to do with all these introductory books about anarchism we have bulging out of our shelves. Frankly, the sooner a revolution comes and makes them unnecessary, the sooner we can get on with stocking books about making your own ice­cream or whatever”.

Yeah OK, that quote is a fake. Truth is, there are few books published in the past decade by mainstream publishers that introduce anarchism in a knowledgeable, sympathetic and accessible way. Veteran (and now sadly deceased) anarchist Colin Ward has compensated for this dearth of material here, in slightly over one hundred pages. He sets out to explain anarchist theory and practice in just enough words to gain the reader’s interest and whet their appetite for further inquiry. Ward’s task is difficult but overall he succeeds.

In the first two chapters Ward offers definitions and practical historical examples, striking a balance between seeing anarchism as the intellectual creation of four European men with beards and the common aspiration and action of activists the world over. Some may dispute the relative weighting of the elements in this synthesis, but it at least gives the reader names to pursue when looking for more detailed information.

The writer offers a good chapter on anarchist attitudes to work and the prison system. Another usefully delineates between progressive and libertarian educational styles, based on voluntary participation with the latter. There is also a chapter about right­ wing libertarians that begins by positing their value as contributors to anarchist discussion while finishing strongly (fortunately) with the statement that “....their inventiveness seems to be limited to providing an ideology for untrammeled market capitalism”.

A late chapter titled Quiet Revolutions lists subjects from fashion, sexuality, gender relations, to education and the internet. These topics are linked as facets of society that have been positively influenced by anarchists. Ward argues that though these successes fall short of achieving an ultimate social revolution, their combined benefit should not be ignored.

Lest he be accused of reformism for the sake of it, Ward’s subsequent discussion of the globalisation movement clearly establishes he believed old­fashioned revolution is still of strategic merit. This attempt to defend gradual gains without excusing the current socio­economic system will be dismissed outright by the impatient among the already converted. Hopefully the rest of us will stop to consider his point.

Any book on anarchism written in the past decade or so would be expected to address new global trends arising since at least the 1960s. Ward certainly recognizes that the world has changed and attempts to address this by for example acknowledging the significant growth of environmental consciousness and the greening of anarchism. While this environmental topic is adequately handled given the limited space available to the author, there are other topics less satisfactorily developed. The chapter on the rise of religious fundamentalism and the decline of the secular state is right in saying that the theorists of the nineteenth century failed to anticipate this trend.

Unfortunately Ward offers scant indication that modern anarchists have attempted to seriously tackle the subject either. He gives the reader little beyond an avowed hope that people talk to their neighbours more, as a way of combating the influence of fundamentalism and ethnic nationalism.

To conclude, readers may not agree with all the omissions, selections or weighing of the material included in this slim book. However, there is enough there to keep the curious newcomer accurately informed and interested to learn more about anarchism. As part of his legacy Ward has added a useful volume to the small category of books that introduce anarchism to readers in a way that combines brevity and thoughtful commentary.

Oh yes, and it really is one of the few books on the subject to be found at Wellington City Library (and also stocked at The Freedom Shop). Check it out @@@
Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward
Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN: 0-19-280477-4

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