Anarchism is a political ideology that has been largely forgotten among the political mainstream and has been largely forgotten by the institutionalized left. While a number of socialist and communist newspapers continue to be published across the United States, anarchism has considerable less public visibility. However, as Marcos Mayer shows in Anarchism For Beginners, despite its lack of visibility since the Second World War, anarchism remains a popular political philosophy. Unlike many mainstream histories of the topic that treat anarchism as a distinctly 19th and 20th century phenomenon, Mayer argues that anarchism continues to have influence on society, particularly after the Soviet experience discredited the socialist and communist left.
A Brief Overview of Anarchist History
Mayer begins his short, illustrated introduction to anarchism by talking anarchism’s resurgence in the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He cites contemporary thinkers such as Noam Chomsky who identify as anarchist–along with a renewed interest in the topic–as being key in keeping the philosophy alive. From this introduction, Mayer segues into an overview of anarchist theory and action over the past 200 years. He gives short overviews of the major theorists Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Goldman, while looking at the historical successes and failures of the movement, including the Spanish Civil War, the terrorist campaigns of the late 1800s, and its contribution to women’s rights. Whereas many histories confine their discussions to one continent, Mayer gives a global overview of anarchism, looking at the movement in Europe, the United States, and South America.
As would be expected in such a short book (169 pages with illustrations on every page), Mayer’s book has to leave out some topics. Unfortunately, while it goes further than many books in that it recognizes the continued relevance of anarchism, it comes up short in offering examples beyond the anti-globalization movement. In the discussion of anarchism after World War II, Mayer talks only of its influence on artistic movements such as Dadaism, the French Situationists and May 1968, and punk rock. Of all these, the discussion on punk rock could have been greatly improved, as Mayer focuses only on the more commercialized sections of the punk scene, rather than the anarcho-punk movement that has fostered an underground network of publications, collective houses, and music labels, all of which are often intimately tied with political action. Similarly, while he touches on it briefly in his discussion of Murray Bookchin, Mayer misses the opportunity to look at anarchism’s role in the radical environmental movement. Contributions to the animal rights movement are also overlooked.
A Worthy Introduction
Overall, Anarchism for Beginners is a worthwhile starting point for someone looking for a quick overview of anarchism. Its short length and cartoon style make it a worthy introduction to a complex topic, and its brief descriptions of different anarchists and movements offer a good jumping off point for further exploration. Moreover, unlike a lot of primers on anarchism–this one was actually written in this century. After reading this book, interested readers might consider moving onto No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism or An Anarchist FAQ: Volume 1, both of which will expand on the concepts introduced in Anarchism for Beginners.
Marcos Mayer, Anarchism For Beginners, (For Beginners, 2008).