These are the last two books I’ve read this year and almost certainly the last I will read this year. I’m also happy to say that I have now read 13 books this year which is more than the one per month that I wanted as my minimum. Perhaps, next year I will do even better! The complete list of all the books I read in 2019 is here.
On Anarchism (2014) by Noam Chomsky
Following a fairly interesting read into anarchism with Peter Kropotkin, I thought I would try to learn a bit more about the topic. I wasn’t particularly familiar with Chomsky apart from hearing about him as a major figure in left-wing politics and thought it might be a good place to start. Unfortunately, the book is not great and did not deliver on its promises.
Despite being published in 2014, On Anarchism is a collection of previous works, many of which were written in the 70s. This does not mean the information is necessarily bad but it was still disappointing. Furthermore, the book is generally not well-written. Chomsky has fallen into the worst excesses of academic writing; choosing fancy prose which obscures understanding. This is made worse by the fact that, although it seems like an introduction to anarchism, it requires a lot of background knowledge with one section being extremely difficult to understand without familiarity with the Spanish Revolution.
In the end, I found that the various chapters were only tangentially related to anarchism but did not explain anarchism itself, were much older than I expected and were poorly written. I would advise against bothering with it.
Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide (2005, revised 2009) by Ruth Kinna
In contrast to the mess that was Chomsky’s book, Ruth Kinna delivered exactly what I was looking for. Anarchism gives an overview of anarchy including the definition, some history, general beliefs and how different schools of anarchist thought differ. Each chapter has its own list of links, further reading suggestions and references for anyone that wants to learn more.
This is the sort of book that should probably be read more than once. While it is written to introduce the subject, it does so topic-by-topic and contrasting different anarchist thoughts. This parallelism is compact but doesn’t have the linear flow that lets you easily build up a single idea. I felt, when I finished, that I had lots of concepts and ideas floating in my head but would struggle to sort them out into the different approaches. That said, it’s a highly-informative book which sets out the different ideas, arguments and thinkers. If you already have some idea of the different players, you will no doubt gain even more from it than I did.
There were two things in it that I found surprising. The first was very little discussion of the online space where I think anarchist thought is probably more common. It would’ve been nice to see a comparison to open source development, such as with Linux, and with the ideals of free software and decentralised software. The second is the sheer amount of overlap and influence between anarchism, communism, socialism and libertarianism. There seem to be many shared aspects but while the latter three are well-known, little attention is paid to anarchism. I suppose that’s because it’s the most threatening to those in power.