Who's Who

Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism

Published in History Today 1992
  • Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism
    Peter Marshall - Harper Collins, 1992 - 767 pp. - £25

Peter Marshall writes from the standpoint of a convinced advocate of Anarchist principles: anarchism that is of the non-violent kind, and with a preference for a co-operative society over 'authoritarian socialism'. His vast book is an encyclopaedia of Anarchist thought, and strands of 'libertarian' thinking having some affinity with it. All its ideas are carefully summarised and commented on. Some unexpected figures are swept into the net. De Sade is bracketed with Fourier as a champion of 'human freedom' (p.143). Nietzsche is credited with 'one of the most eloquent defences of individualism ever made' (p. 143).

Oscar Wilde is introduced as 'the greatest of all libertarians' (p. 180). He might be better described as a great libertine, with some good intentions. In some sense, no doubt, we are all libertarians; each of us wants freedom at least for himself. A feudal baron, in the old saying, claimed liberty to hang his own peasant on his own park tree. Today's capitalists, tutored by Bush and Thatcher, claim the right to run the national economy, well or ill, without let or hindrance from anyone.

Partly through over-inclusiveness, and a sometimes repetitious plan, there is not much space for the historical background promised in the introduction, the social structures and conditions out of which Anarchism grew. The watch-making artisan industry of the Jura canton is barely mentioned; the massive movements in two regions of Spain, Catalonia and Andalusia, are left unexplained; so is an active, if somewhat freakish and brief, excitement in Holland. Where reference is made to history, it is not always accurate. Nehru is accused of having 'proceeded to militarize and centralize the Indian State' as soon as Gandhi was out of the way (p. 426). A picture of life in the old Russian village is far too idyllic (p. 469). Neither Bakunin nor Marx relegated 'students, women and the unemployed' to the lumpenproletariat (p.54l).

A quick survey of pre-modern times begins, appropriately, with Taoism. Early China (why China, and not India?) was youthful enough to feel itself part of a benign, universal ebb and flow, on which mankind needed only to float along. In the Englisk Revolution 'a recognizable anarchist sensibility' of modern stamp showed itself for the first time (p.96). Marshall laments that its ablest spokesman, Winstanley, after the Digger failure lost his 'libertarian genius' and veered towards something like disciplined Communism (p. 100). Similar disillusion was to overtake many others; it may be that the Anarchist faith was too negative, apart from euphoric fantasy, to sustain them.

Another Englishman, Godwin, opens the list of 'classical thinkers', with his Political Justice of 1793. He denounced governments for fomenting 'oppression. despotism, war and conquest' (p. 206), and exploiting patriotism in order to dupe the public. He was more original in identifying private property, along with government, as the great perverter of humanity. For a cure he looked primarily to education. But this has always been controlled and directed by the propertied classes; and his 'cautious gradualism', Marshall admits, supplied no practical programme. A Frenchman, Proudhon, became 'the first self-styled anarchist' (p. 234). His chief work, What is Property? in 1840 put economic and class issues in the forefront, but he was attacking socialism as well as capitalism, and soon fell foul of Marx. Marshall admits that he was excessively 'paradoxical and inconsistent' (p. 260), and as he grew older evolved into a fervent nationalist. Bakunin too has to be adjudged a 'powerful' but 'profoundly contradictory' thinker (p. 270, 278).

On the whole Anarchism must be said to have failed to establish itself as an independent school of thought. Marshall holds that it had a splendid and unexpected revival in the l960s, but this was partly mere Hippy froth, and mostly petered out before long. It has had more success through indirect channels, in association with other trends, especially socialism. Emma Goldman in America initiated its ties with feminism. It has found congenial fellow-travellers among artists, like the Post-Impressionist painters or the Dadaists of the First World War. Today, with writers like Murray Bookchin, it is linking itself increasingly with ecology, the ideal of saving life on earth. In this we can see something like a turning back to its origins, the Taoist brotherhood of Nature.

  • V.G. KIERNAN is the author of The Lords of Human Kind (Century Hutchinson, 1988).

Recent stories