by Julian Langer
"If we do truly live in a world where all great anarchists are dead, then the world is truly a terrible place – or at least that is this anarchist’s opinion."
' Great Anarchists' by Ruth Kinna and Clifford Harper and published by Dog Section Press and Active Distribution, is an ideal read for anyone interested in the history of theorists and activists advocating one or another variant of anarchism, as a first introduction to them.
The book delves into the lives of individuals who are considered historically significant, with their thought described through the interpretations the authors provide. Each chapter was originally a pamphlet, published individually as a bite into the great-anarchist.
The real value in this book is it being a comfortable introduction, which is easy on the reader. This book is an ideal read for younger students, who are new to the ideology and history of anarchism.
For any reader who is familiar with anarchism already, the book should be an enjoyable reminder of the foundations from which contemporary anarchism has grown from. Alongside the text, the book is full of beautiful artwork, which opens each chapter with an image of who they are going to be reading about.
I do wonder why the authors neglected to include any more recent or contemporary individuals involved in anarchist practice and discourse.
Limiting the collection in this way would suggest that anarchy-is-dead, in the same way that punk is often looked at as dead.
Goldman, Wilde and many other individuals referenced within the collection are definitely still relevant to the anarchist thought today, but are all “great anarchists” really dead?
Related: Thoughts on political misanthropy
If we do truly live in a world where all great anarchists are dead, then the world is truly a terrible place – or at least that is this anarchist’s opinion. Individuals like Flower Bomb and those individuals rebelling against the machinery of police violence in the USA incline me towards believing that anarchist greatness lives within many of those humans fighting still.
There is also the question of what constitutes a great anarchist, compared with an ordinary or a terrible one? If you were to ask me who are historical anarchists I consider great, I would be unable to exclude individuals such as Thoreau, Armand and Libertad, who are not included within this collection. Equally, I would never include William Godwin within the sphere of individuals I consider “great anarchists”. Also, why are great anarchists only individuals who propagate the ideology within Euro-American discourse – is Pemulwuy or any other indigenous resistor of colonial-totalitarianism not a great anarchist?
These criticisms are perhaps unfair. However, I feel they are matters which anyone of us who call ourselves anarchists need to consider. Has anarchy died or do we embody, or at least have the potential to embody, greatness?
Regardless of these criticisms, this book is one that I am pleased to see included within the ever-growing library of anarchist thought. It is excellently written and enjoyable to read. While those of us who have read and reread and rereread the classics of anarchist thought might not encounter anything new, as far as thought and theory goes, we can still read and appreciate this book as a comfortable reframing of what we have read; with this book also being potentially valuable to the younger anarchists we once were, fascinated romantically with those dead greats, seeking to find our own greatness.
Great Anarchists would fit into any anarchist’s library or any library on anarchism nicely. While I read it over two days, a more concentrated read could undoubtedly be completed in a single afternoon.