Freedom review of An Anarchist FAQ

“At long last [ AFAQ] . . . has moved from the Internet onto the printed page . . . The prefix to the book is ‘An’ Anarchist FAQ. The collective is too modest. This is the place to go to find out about anarchist ides, theory and practice. It is accessible and based on sound research. Thoroughly recommended.” (Richard Griffin, Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 14)

The Big Black Book

At long last An Anarchist Frequently Asked Questions (AFAQ) has moved from the Internet onto the printed page – 555 printed pages to be precise. In an engaging introduction regular Freedom contributor Iain McKay sets out the aims of AFAQ. The purpose of the book, he writes, is to present the case for anarchism, ‘to convince people they should become anarchists’ and to act as a resource for anarchists. All these are laudable but I suspect the main use the book will be put too is as a resource for people who already regard themselves as anarchists.   Indeed it is likely to be the primary source anarchists turn too for information about anarchist theory and history. Want to know about the role of anarchists in the May-June revolt in France, 1968? Interested in the origins of the black, black/red flag and circled A as symbols of our movement? Want arguments for why capitalism does not benefit working class people? Need to remind yourself of the purpose of the state? This is the place to turn.

The book would also be excellent for the (small but) growing number of university courses which include anarchism as part of their programme. Interestingly while there are many good anarchists working as academics in universities and colleges this book has been produced by activists writing and researching in their spare time and contributing collectively. An example of anarchism in action in fact. As the book points out this is ‘an anarchist FAQ written by anarchists’. It is accessible, not laden with jargon but also built on ten years and more of solid research.

Take, for example, the answer to the question: is profit the reward for the productivity of capital (page 236)? The four-page essay that follows includes referenced quotes from Prodhon, Bakunin, David Ellerman, the economist Joan Robinson, William Lazonick, and early English socialist Thomas Hodgskin. The answer to the question, in a nutshell, is “the reason why capital gets a “reward” is simply due to the current system which gives the capitalist class an advantage which allows them to refuse access to their property except under the condition that they command the workers to make more than they have to pay in wages and keep their capital at the end of production process to be used afresh the next”. While I suspect that most readers of Freedom would have given a similar answer having a resource that we can turn too to provide quotes from other anarchists and critics of capitalism as well as reminding ourselves (or finding for the first time) anarchist arguments is invaluable.

The book, the first of two volumes, is organised around the following main questions: What is Anarchism?; Why do anarchists oppose the current system?; What are the myths of capitalist economics?; How does statism and capitalism affect society?; What do anarchists think cause ecological problems?; and Is ‘anarcho’-capitalism a type of anarchism? Each section is broken down into a series of sub-questions addressing specific elements of the main theme. The structure of the book is such that it is easy to dip into.

If there is a single underlying theme to the book it is one born from the original web-based AFAQ project, that is the only political theory that can legitimately be called ‘anarchism’ is a comprehensively left wing ideology rooted in class politics. All other claims to anarchism and libertarianism are at best partial and at worse as in the case of so-called ‘anarcho’-capitalism retrograde. Anarchism is a left project or it is nothing.

The book also provides valuable arguments against those on the authoritarian left like Lenin who described anarchism once as ‘an infantile disorder’.

While addressing the big questions that anarchism as a credible political theory needs to answer as well as responding to the criticisms levelled at anarchism from both the left and right, the book also includes an interesting Appendix on the Symbols of Anarchy describing the history of the black flag including its use by Nestor Makhno’s partisans in the Russian Revolution when they managed to keep Ukraine free of authoritarian rule for two years. The use of the black flag by libertarians, however, dates much further back than that. AFAQs points out that “Louise Michel, famous participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, was instrumental in popularising the use of the black flag in anarchist circles”. Unlike the black flag the history of the circled A symbol is less clear. While some like Peter Marshall claims that it originates from Proudhon’s maxim that ‘Anarchy in Order’, this as the book points out is unlikely. The first ‘official’ appearances of the symbol seem to have been in 1956 when at its foundation in Brussels the Alliance Ouvrier Anarchiste adopted the symbol and images of anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War with the image painted on their helmets. While the exact origins of the symbol are unknown the fact that in most languages the word for anarchism begins with an ‘A’, along with the simplicity of the image perhaps explains its universal appeal (and not just to anarchists).

A couple of minor criticisms. Inevitably the size of the book means that at £20 it will be out of the reach of some comrades – however the Anarchist FAQ website remains a free resource. An index and bibliography would have been valuable. However these are only small points. Iain and the rest of the collective and AK Press should be congratulated for producing this comprehensive resource. The prefix to the book is ‘An’ Anarchist FAQ. The collective is too modest. This is the place to go to find out about anarchist ides, theory and practice. It is accessible and based on sound research. Thoroughly recommended.

Richard Griffin


1st August 2009

Vol. 70, No. 14

Pages 15-6