AK Press Working Classics Series reviewed in PMR

Paul J. Comeau over at the Political Media Review has admirably tackled the job of reviewing our entire Working Classics series. Check it out below, and be sure to checkout PMR’s web site too.
AK Press Working Classics Series
Reviewed by Paul J. Comeau

Anyone looking to educate themselves on the history and principles of anarchism should look no further for a starting place than the books in AK Press’s Working Classics series.  The series as a whole represents some of the finest writings on anarchist theory and practice ever published, reprinted in small and relatively inexpensive volumes, making the ideas of anarchism accessible to a modern audience.  These reprints offer something for everyone, with clean and easy to read layouts making them inviting to first time readers, and convenient for readers already acquainted with the works by allowing easy searching of favorite chapters and passages.

The four volumes in the series (so far) are:

Vol. 1.  What Is Anarchism? – Alexander Berkman
Vol. 2.  Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice – Rudolph Rocker
Vol. 3.  Post-Scarcity Anarchism – Murray Bookchin
Vol. 4.  The Conquest of Bread – Peter Kropotkin

What Is Anarchism was one of the first books on anarchism that I ever read.  Re-reading it for the first time in several years, it’s easy to see why it made such an impression on me, and why it continues to make an impression on readers everywhere, over eighty years after its’ first publication in book form.  Writing in plain language, and in a conversational tone, Berkman not only elucidates the principles of anarchism in ways that are easy to understand, but he provides concrete examples to which readers can relate.  The book is divided into three parts (frequently published separately in pamphlet form).  In the first part, Berkman attempts to explore the structure of society in which we live, and show readers how this structure is unjust by highlighting the disparities that exist between the social classes.  Berkman emphasizes how the social classes can never live in harmony with one another as their interests are opposed.  “There can be no justice as long as we live under conditions which enable one person to take advantage of another’s need, to turn it to his profit, and exploit his fellowman”(42), Berkman writes.  In part two, he explores anarchism in earnest, both what it is, and what it means for those who are part of it.  Berkman does not shy away from the criticism of anarchism as a violent ideology, but tackles it head on.  “It is capitalism and government which stand for disorder and violence,” Berkman counters.  “Anarchism is the very reverse of it; it means order without government and peace without violence” (138).  Part two concludes with a discussion of the distinction between communist anarchists and non-communist anarchists.  Communist anarchism – anarchism based on the principle of “social ownership and sharing according to need” (169), according to Berkman “would be the best and most just economic arrangement” (169).  Non-communist anarchists, individualist and mutualist anarchists, don’t agree on the concept of “social ownership” as Berkman sees it.  They prefer a system of individual private property that Berkman takes to task, identifying private property as “one of the main sources of injustice and inequality, of poverty and misery” (169).  After taking the individualists and mutualists to task, Berkman turns in part three to outlining the chief aim of communist anarchism:   the Social Revolution.  The Social Revolution is the situation that will bring about the realization of the aspirations of the communist anarchists, and lead to the state of anarchy.  Berkman outlines how such a situation could be brought about, and how it could and should be defended by those who would oppose it.  What Is Anarchism outlines both the ideology, and the methodology of anarchism, as envisioned by one of its’ greatest thinkers and practitioners.

Though published in 1929 and in a second edition in 1937, by ‘37 Berkman’s emphasis on communist anarchism, and his focus on the Russian Revolution had become dated by recent developments.  The chief among these developments was the Spanish Revolution, and the concurrent interest in anarcho-syndicalism, anarchism with an emphasis on radical trade unionism, both as a basis of organization, and as the direction towards which the social revolution could be brought about.  The English publisher Secker & Warburg approached Emma Goldman, one of the best-known anarchists in the world, who was then living in London and organizing on behalf of the Spanish anarchists, about a book on Anarchism and the situation in Spain (Rocker vii).  Though she had just written an introduction to the second – and posthumous edition – of Berkman’s book, it was she who realized that a new work was needed to explain the Spanish situation, and the ideals and practices of anarcho-syndicalism to the masses clamoring to understand developing events in Spain.  To that end, she tapped German-born anarchist Rudolf Rocker, then living in the US, to write such a book.  After a back and forth correspondence, Rocker agreed to the project, and Anarcho-Syndicalism:  Theory and Practice was first printed in March 1938.

Anarcho-Syndicalism is a great addition to this series, acting as a perfect companion to Berkman’s What Is Anarchism.  Reading Rocker’s concise and calculated explication of the principles of anarcho-syndicalism acts as a temper to some of the exuberant idealism expressed by Berkman, and serves to give the theories expressed in What Is Anarchism on how a social revolution might be brought about, a more concrete direction.  Rocker begins by tracing the history of anarchist thought, and some of its’ basic principles, from William Godwin to the present in which he wrote.  He follows this with a section tracing the development of the labor movement, from the industrial revolution and the birth of capitalism as we know it, to the influence of socialism, particularly libertarian socialism (anarchism) on the labor movement.  This co-mingling of labor and anarchism sowed seeds that would later sprout into movements towards anarcho-syndicalism, and embodied Rocker’s assertion that “New worlds are not born in the vacuum of abstract ideas, but in the fight for daily bread, in that hard and ceaseless struggle which the needs and worries of the hour demand just to take care of the indispensible requirements of life,” (Rocker 33).  This understanding of the connection between the current struggle and the building of a future anarchist society is a theme that Rocker returns to when he explores “The Objectives of Anarcho-Syndicalism” (54), which he explores in the context of a then current real-world example, the syndicalism-in-practice of the CNT and FAI in the Spanish Revolution.  Rocker demonstrates here and in the chapters that follow how the methods and practices of anarcho-syndicalism are not simply meant to address economic – bread and butter – issues, but that they are political issues as well, though more significant than any one party or platform under existing systems.  Indeed, what Rocker describes is a new form of politics, replacing all previous forms, where all political and economic life is managed by the productive classes through the organs of the local, regional, national, and ultimately international unions and syndicates into a loose federalism, “an alliance of free groups of men and women based on co-operative labour and a planned administration of things in the interest of the community” (72).  Rocker traces developments in syndicalist practices apart from Spain in the closing chapters, and the original ending closes on a hopeful note with the full possibility of the situation in Spain waiting to be actualized.  That ending is not the ending of this reprinted edition however, which also includes Rocker’s epilogue to the 1947 reprint of the text.  In this epilogue, Rocker laments the defeat of the Spanish anarchists, and indeed the destruction of organized labor everywhere, counting the labor movement among the casualties of the Second World War.  Despite the destructive effects of the war on the movement, Rocker retains an optimistic view of the future, and it is this belief in the validity of the ideals of anarcho-syndicalism that readers will take away from the reading of this book.

The series takes a different turn in the third volume, with Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism.  Anarchist, radical ecologist, theorist, and writer – few have endured such rabid admiration by their followers or disgust by their detractors as Bookchin.  Arguably one of the most influential theorists of the mid-late twentieth century, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, first published in 1971, collected for the first time in book-form essays Bookchin wrote during the 60s.  The collection represents some of Bookchin’s most important writings, including the title essay, “Post-Scarcity Anarchism,” “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” and one of his most controversial pieces, “Listen, Marxist!”  In three prefaces introducing the works and their ideas, Bookchin is a bit overly self-congratulatory in discussing the influence these essays have had over countless activists and radical theorists, but that influence cannot be discounted or dismissed however inflated his ego might appear.  In the first prefatory essay, Bookchin lays out for readers the general themes running through every essay in the book, the tying of anarchism and ecology, and his view of the current state of society, the ongoing ecological crisis, and how best to respond to it.  In discussing the ecological crisis, Bookchin dismisses attempts to solve it within the contemporary framework.  “Capitalism is inherently anti-ecological,” he writes (viii), an argument he will expand upon in the essays themselves.

In the first essay, the title essay, Bookchin makes the case that in a society where the needs of man can be met by technology – a post-scarcity society – the only reason they are not, is due to the massive centralization of every aspect of human life.  “The bourgeois control of technology reinforces the established organization of society and everyday life,” Bookchin writes (3).  “By their centralistic nature, the resources of abundance reinforce the monopolistic, centralistic and bureaucratic tendencies in the political apparatus” (3). The solution Bookchin sees is in anarchism.  “The absolute negation of the state is anarchism – a situation in which men liberate not only “history,” but all the immediate circumstances of their everyday lives,” (7) he writes.  This liberation of everyday life Bookchin cites as among the most important aims of any revolution.  “Revolutionary liberation must be a self-liberation that reaches social dimensions, not ‘mass liberation’ or ‘class liberation’ behind which lurks the rule of an elite, a hierarchy and a state.” (10). “There can be no separation of the revolutionary process from the revolutionary goal” (11), he adds.  After establishing the premises upon which post-scarcity anarchism is based, and its ties to ecology, Bookchin closes with the comparison of contemporary society to that of the Enlightenment era of the 18th century, particularly in France.

He argues that the growing disenchantment with the “values, the forms, the aspirations, and above all, the institutions of the established order” (13) mirrored the sentiments felt by the masses in years leading up to the French Revolution.

The Enlightenment serves as a touchstone upon which Bookchin returns in his essay “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought.”  Here, he explores how the cross-pollinating of the sciences, philosophy, and revolutionary thought led to the revolutionary upheavals at the close of the eighteenth century (20).  He argues that in our time, the science most relevant to modern times, as it affects revolutionary thinking, is ecology, which “Broadly conceived…deals with the balance of nature.  In as much as nature includes man, the science basically deals with the harmonization of nature and man” (Bookchin 21).  He describes the pollution of the earth, as man’s “parasitism” (22) and explores the connections between our destruction of the environment, and the nature of our society.  “Man has produced imbalances not only in nature, but, more fundamentally, in his relations with his fellow man in the very structure of society.  The imbalances man has produced in the natural world are caused by the imbalances he has produced in the social world” (23) he writes.  This idea that the unhealthy nature of our society might be the cause for our disregard for the health of our environment might seem obvious to contemporary readers concerned with the preservation of the earth and the freedom of humankind, but at the time of it’s writing it was a profound thought to link the oppressive nature of human society to the human oppression of the earth’s ecosystem.  To best understand the interweaving relationships between man and man, and man and his environment, Bookchin lays out the study of “social ecology,” a system that examines the structure and organization of society in terms of it’s relation to the environment.  He argues that when looked at through the lens of this social ecology, the solution to both problems is in anarchism – in decentralizing all aspects of human existence, from the structures of society, to our habitats.  The doing away of centralized urban areas for smaller and more manageable and sustainable urban areas, spread out over regions.  “The validity of the decentralist case can be demonstrated for nearly all the ‘logistical’ problems of our time” he writes (34).  He furthers the case for anarchism by tracing the commonalities, as he sees them, between anarchism and ecology, and turns this discussion into an outline of his vision of what an ecologically stable anarchist society would look like (36-40).  The ecological case for anarchism is an interesting one, because it is larger in scope than many past arguments.  It makes the case for anarchism not just against the domination of man over his fellows, but against the domination of man over his environment, and argues for a more just and sustainable approach to all aspects of our existence.

While these first two essays lay the basis for understanding Bookchin’s thought, it is his essay “Listen Marxist!” that has stirred up the most controversy over the years.  The essay continues Bookchin’s argument towards a critique of capitalism and an advocating of the ideology of post-scarcity anarchism, but it does this in the context of an attack on the ideas of contemporary Marxism.  While Bookchin laid out more complex and detailed criticisms of Marxism in his books Toward an Ecological Society and The Ecology of Freedom, in this essay are the germination of his ideas that the critique of capitalism that Marx made, while sharply on point and relevant to the time in which he wrote, has since been outdated by capital’s continuing development – necessitating a newer and more relevant critique of existing social and economic structures.  Bookchin criticizes not only the relevance of Marx in the contemporary world, but the ideals which contemporary Marxism touts, what he calls “The Myth of the Proletariat” (114), and “The Myth of the Party” (122).  He argues that “The worker becomes a revolutionary not by becoming more of a worker but by undoing his ‘workerness’” (119), by developing not a class-consciousness as the Marxists would desire, but an “un-class consciousness…What he is shedding are precisely those class shackles that bind him to all systems of domination (119-20).  He further argues against the Party and other centralist forms of organizing, and looked to the Paris uprisings for inspiration.  He concludes by drawing a line in the sand against hierarchical structures of all kinds, including revolutionary ones.  “The organization we try to build is the kind of society our revolution will create.  Either we will shed the past – in ourselves as well as in our groups – or there will simply be no future to win,” (143), a rather bleak outlook, but one that may bear out if the ecological decline we find ourselves on continues unchecked.

In the other equally thought-provoking essays in this book, Bookchin presents scathing critiques of technology (“Towards a Liberatory Technology”), syndicalism (“The Forms of Freedom”), and other subjects.  He also includes two pieces covering briefly the facts and analysis of the Paris uprising of ‘68.  While these are all interesting in their own right – particularly Bookchin’s criticism of syndicalism and advocating for local assemblies, in “The Forms of Freedom,” – it is the essays discussed at length that bear the most relevance to contemporary readers, and are where they should first turn their attention when picking up this book.

No collection of significant writings on anarchism would be complete without including Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, the fourth and most recent book in this series.  All three of the other writers in this series took inspiration at one level or another from Kropotkin’s ideas and theories, laid out here in perhaps his best known work.  The Conquest of Bread is not merely a work of theory, but also a work of propaganda, written in plain language, and meant to be read by working people.  The text is based upon a series of articles Kropotkin wrote for the anarchist newspaper Le Revolte, compiled by a comrade at Le Revolte and revised by the author to read as a whole.

(Kropotkin 25).  The book takes as its task to explore in practical terms how wealth – the productive output of working people everywhere – would be distributed in an anarchist society.  “Well-being for all is not a dream,” Kropotkin writes (63).  “We must recognize, and loudly proclaim, that everyone, whatever his grade in the old society…has, before everything, THE RIGHT TO LIVE, and that society is bound to share amongst all, without exceptions the means of existence at its disposal” (70).

  Kropotkin goes on to explore the basis for how such a system might be organized, that of anarchist-communism, which he devotes an entire chapter to explaining.  “Every society which has abolished private property will be forced, we maintain, to organize itself on the lines of Communistic Anarchy” Kropotkin writes (73).  The reason for this is that “in the present state of industry, when everything is interdependent, when each branch of production is knit up with all the rest, the attempt to claim an Individualist origin for the products of history is absolutely untenable,” (73).  This view countered the arguments of many contemporaries that workers would be compensated for the full value of the products they produced individually, by arguing essentially that there is no such thing as individual production; that all the goods produced by society are created collectively, and must therefore be shared collectively.  Kropotkin’s system would do away not only with the wage system, tied as it was to capitalistic enterprise, but other forms of individual compensation as well.  What his system opts for instead can be summed up by the ideal that “to every man according to his needs” (75).  Kropotkin elaborates a critique of wage systems in post-revolutionary societies in chapter 13, arguing that they are untenable and violate the spirit of the revolutionary ideals upon which their revolution was founded – the abolition of private property (190).

Kropotkin not only lays out a plan for how an anarchist-communist society might be organized, but he also devotes an entire chapter to addressing the chief arguments against such a system.  The chief objection Kropotkin addresses is of how in a society where people are not forcibly compelled to work, would anyone work? (171).  Kropotkin argues that if people shared equally in the product, that they would work out of a desire to benefit the community, and he goes on to provide examples of such communal work (174).

What we see in reading The Conquest of Bread is a positive vision of a future anarchist society, covering virtually every aspect and function of such a society in clear language and in a relatively small space.  It is a book that doesn’t just argue for the overthrow of the state and capitalism, but lays a concrete vision for what a post-capitalist society might look like.

If there is one thing readers should take away from all of these books, it is recognition of the untapped potential of people to reshape their world for the better, and how that future world is closer than we might think, if we are all willing to come together and struggle to make it reality.

original url: http://www.politicalmediareview.org/2011/05/ak-press-working-classics-series/