Review of Uri Gordon’s Anarchy Alive

My review of Uri Gordon’s Anarchy Alive (which, in short, I highly recommend) is in the latest issue of Capital and Class (Feb 2012). And it’s also beneath the picture below, or downloadable here. Not sure I share its optimism any longer, but I’d still encourage anyone interested in anarchism and contemporary social movements to read it (not sure about the cover mind):

Book review: Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, by Uri Gordon

Capital & Class 2012 36: 189

In 2004, David Graeber (2004: 2) noted that although ‘anarchism is veritably exploding right now’, academia has failed to keep up, offering little other than caricatured understandings of a complex movement. Whilst he was perhaps overstating his case a little, even then, Uri Gordon’s Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory shows that a thoughtful, nuanced understanding of contemporary anarchism is not an impossibility in the university. Developed from his Ph.D. thesis (written at Oxford University, no less) it offers a compelling vision of an ideological movement whose relevance now is even stronger than it was in 2004.

The subtitle of Gordon’s work talks of a move ‘from practice to theory’, inverting the more standard approach of books which proclaim the relevance of a particular political ideology. Yet Gordon’s book actually goes further, undermining the dichotomy between practice and theory: it is perhaps best thought of as a work of praxis, in which theory and practice are irreducibly bound together in a mutually reinforcing relationship. It is a work which puts ‘organisation, action and lifestyle on the same footing with ideas and theories’ (p. 27), and what results is that each of these facets of anarchism asks awkward questions of the others such that a precise definition of ‘anarchism’ can never be established. Any initial fears that encoding key issues in anarchist practice into a work of theory might bring about an ossification of the movement are thus unfounded, and despite a cautiously optimistic tone throughout, Anarchy Alive! is bookended with assertions that its purpose is to ask ‘relevant questions’ (p. 7), and that ‘there are more questions than answers’ (p. 164). Indeed, the book’s refusal to fix the meaning of anarchism once and for all – and the liveliness of the debates it draws on – perhaps offers an answer to the questions Sartre posed in Critique of Dialectical Reason, where he wondered how it was possible for revolutionary politics to avoid ossification into bureaucratic forms of organisation, killing its vitality (Sartre, 2004).

It may seem odd, then, that Gordon considers anarchism an ‘ideology’ – a concept often seen by many anarchists as the site of precisely such ossification (see McQuinn, 2011; Landstreicher, 2001). Yet drawing on the work of his Oxford supervisor Michael Freeden, Gordon instead argues that ‘ideologies are not irrational dogmas or forms of “false consciousness”’ but rather are ‘paradigms that people use … to handle ideas that are essentially contested in political language’ (p. 20). This view of ideology poses no threat to Rudy Rocker’s understanding of anarchism (which Gordon quotes approvingly) as offering ‘no patent solution for human problems … It does not believe in any absolute truth, or in definite final goals for human development’ (p. 43).

It is to the current framing of the paradigms central to anarchism that Gordon turns in Chapter 2, where – as throughout the book – he draws predominantly on his experiences in anarchist struggles across Europe and the Middle East, and on the literature developed from these struggles: webzines, photocopied pamphlets, Indymedia postings and diy documentary films. From this, he argues that the three core concepts for the ideology of anarchism are domination, prefiguration and diversity/open-endedness, but that the meanings and relationships of these ‘are constantly reframed and recoded in response to world events, political alliances and trends in direct-action culture, evolving through intense flows of communication and discussion, and through innumerable experiences and experiments’ (p. 28).

Gordon’s familiarity with the multifarious debates of contemporary anarchism means that his work is imbued with an intrinsic understanding of the subtleties of anarchism that is lost in the caricatures of which Graeber speaks sorrowfully. In Chapter 3, ‘Power and Anarchy’, for example, he notes that ‘anarchists are hardly “against power”’ (p. 49), and continues to explain how anarchism seeks to maximise the individual’s ‘power-to’ by developing the communal ‘power-with’ (p. 50, 54-5). The complexities of this process are then examined with reference to anarchist practice of groups including Food not Bombs (p. 58) and Reclaim the Streets (p. 72-3), where factors not traditionally considered in works of ‘political philosophy’ must be considered: sparse finances, the self-confidence of activists, a lack of equipment and so on. Equally nuanced is Gordon’s argument that anarchism must not be seen as the logical conclusion of democracy, since it is philosophy that lacks the ability to force decisions upon others (p. 68-9); although, whilst he makes a compelling case here, it is one of the rare occasions on which his reflections are grounded in abstract theorising rather than in the movement itself. I am sympathetic to his claims, but would argue that it is for the movement to decide whether the term ‘democracy’ should be dispensed with or not – perhaps it is a concept that can be remade, rather than rejected.

The second half of the book sees Gordon apply his approach to a number of key issues of debate in contemporary radical politics and features chapters on the role of violence, technology, and the politics of Israel/Palestine. This section of the book, I wish to suggest, is particularly fruitful, both for those involved in the movement and those seeking an understanding of how it operates. The former can take inspiration for Gordon’s call for a ‘diversity of tactics’ (p. 78) and the unstinting tolerance for a diversity of opinions which is a frequent marker of this book. For the latter, it helps to flesh out how the machinations of anarchism play out on a ‘day-to-day basis’ far more effectively than any work grounded solely in theory ever could. I do not always agree with Gordon’s pronouncements (I think he is too pessimistic about the radical potential of technology, for example); others I found persuasive (his claim that no form of politics can escape violence, and that anarchism needs to bear this in mind when debating when violent struggle is ethically acceptable): but to take debate at length with these in this review would miss what makes this book so vital, for Gordon is not limiting anarchist theory to his beliefs on these issues, but rather showing how anarchism is ‘a dialogue’, which discusses real people’s ideas and practices with them: which ‘speak[s] – not from above, but from within’ (p. 9). These chapters should rather be read as invitations to reflect on and engage with Gordon’s claims from within the movement, using the same generosity of spirit Gordon shows in developing his arguments.

That is not to say that this book is beyond reproach, and I have concerns that the vision of the anarchist ‘movement’ Gordon offers (unintentionally) sets up a dichotomy between the ‘inside’ of that movement and the ‘outside’: with the inside appearing somewhat intimidating to penetrate. ‘Our archetypal anarchist’, we are told, ‘could pull up genetically modified crops before dawn, report on action through emails and independent media websites in the morning, take a nap, and then do a bit of allotment gardening in the afternoon and work part-time as a programmer in the evening’ (p. 109). Inspiring stuff, undoubtedly, but due to issues such as childcare, timidity, depression, disability, imprisonment or financial woes – not to mention a whole host of other late-capitalist anxieties – not an approach that is open to all. I worry that setting up such an intense body of activity as ‘anarchism’ risks alienating people who cannot offer that much to the movement. It might, perhaps, be more productive to think of anarchism as a culture which, at times, we all embody – the approach taken by Colin Ward (1982) (and which Gordon himself acknowledges: 41). Yet this is not perfect either, and runs the risk of depoliticising anarchism, reducing it to a series of generous gestures and leading to a situation in which ‘your archetypal anarchist helps an old lady across the street in the morning, illegally downloads some music all afternoon and then dumpster dives with his mates in the evening’. To avoid potential activists succumbing to this rather individualised fate, the anarchist movement must display not only the internally generous spirit exemplified by Gordon’s book, but also appear outwardly attractive to those who have much to offer the movement.

If the anarchist movement can find a way to solve this conundrum and move forwards with the clarity, honesty and enthusiasm that Gordon’s book displays then I would be tempted to share the optimism with which it closes and agree that many of the questions anarchists must now face are indeed ‘new questions … questions about winning’ (p. 164).


Graeber D (2004) Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Ceros Press.

Landstreicher W (2001) How then do we go wild? Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed 52.

May M (1994) The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism. Pennsylvania State University Press.

McQuinn J (2011) Post-left anarchy: Leaving the left behind. Online at http://www.theanarchistlibrary. org, accessed 14 June 2011.

Sartre J-P (2004) Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles, trans. Smith A. London: Verso.

Ward C (1982) Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press.

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