'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, March 02, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Anarchism: From Theory to Practice 

Daniel Guerin is a figure that is not much known in the United States. But, over the course of his life in France, he was, as a bisexual, an advocate for sexual liberation, a committed anti-fascist and, after a protracted journey in search of anti-Stalinist Marxist alternatives, an anarchist.

In other words, Guerin was someone whose social instincts invariably lead him to rely upon the ability of people to reach the the most just outcomes through reliance upon their own abilities and experiences. Few of his writings have been translated into English, with one of his most well known being Anarchism: From Theory to Practice. One is tempted to consider this work as outdated, having been published in 1969, but, when I saw it on the shelf at Moe's Books, I just couldn't resist it. For those of you who are interested, you can read it online, although please don't hesitate to support the good works of the Monthly Review Press by purchasing it directly.

My willingness to overcome a bias in favor of recently published books was rewarded upon reading it. Over the course of an easily digested 166 pages, Guerin introduces us to the emergence of anarchist theory in the 19th Century, and the attempt to put it into the practice in the early decades of the 20th. He concisely describes the doctrinal disputes, primarily over the role of the State, that resulted in the split between Marxists, social democrats and anarchists even as he takes the anarchist side. He also explains how anarchism was marginalized by the separation of individual anarchists from the trade union movement in the 1890s, and then reinvigorated by their reentry after the turn of the decade.

Such an analysis implicitly repudiates the notion that anarchists can effectively motivate the proletariat to liberate themselves from a hierarchical, capitalist system through violent vanguardist actions. It also points towards a critical question of our times. How can anarchists, or alternatively, libertarian socialists, persuade millions of workers around the world to voluntarily associate with one another to construct an alternative social system? One struggles to answer it when trade unions, organizations that Guerin considered politically and economically essential for the socialist transformation of society, are frequently on the decline, rendered innocuous through their incorporation into a capitalist system of management, production and distribution or, in many countries, non-existent.

Significantly, Guerin writes a great deal about various forms of anarchist economic theory, the necessity of putting the means of production in the hands of workers while acknowledging that they must interact with one another in federal or confederational forms. Interestingly, much of what he relates about attempts to put it into practice, especially during the early days of the Spanish Civil War, naturally, has been expropriated by management theorists that have advised corporations in recent decades, with the limitation, of course, that the workers are only supposed to be empowered to the extent that they can improve productivity. The primary, more profound democratization component has been reduced to the level of superficial appeals to personal motivation.

Along these lines, Guerin highlights a critical issue within anarchism itself: the global integration of the world economy and his insistence that anarchism must abandon social theories dependent upon communal, artisanal forms of production. As noted by Kevin Phillips, the early decades of the 20th Century constituted one of the most intense periods of globalization that that the world had ever encountered. Guerin allows the great Spanish anarchist, Santillan, to speak for him, a man, who, in the 1920s and 1930s, recognized that global economic interdependence had rendered the artisanal vision of anarchism infeasible.

But is that still true today? With the ongoing collapse of the financial system that funded a global system of resource extraction, product development, manufacture, production, transportion, retail distribution and consumption, are we about to experience a return to more local, sustainable economies? Or, is this crisis going to be exploited to create a global architecture of capital, labor and consumption, with an even more rigorous concentration of wealth within an international elite? Or, perhaps, paradoxically, even both simultaneously? For anarchism, or any form of socialism, to present the prospect of meaningful social change, these questions must be thoughtfully and effectively engaged.

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