Review of Volume 2 of the Anarchist FAQ


Back before many people had discovered the internet a small group of anarchists including this writer began work on the Anarchist FAQ. We were tired of having to provide the same basic explanations over and over as new people joined the news net group, alt.soc.anarchism, so we began the FAQ so newcomers could be referred to it.

I soon dropped out of the project as did most of the others involved but a small group, with Iain McKay the most active among them, kept working on it year after year. In the sixteen years that have passed the FAQ has became huge and an exhaustive argument for anarchism.

Long texts are hard to read off a computer screen so publication of the FAQ in a printed form was an obvious step. Volume 2 of the FAQ has just been published by AK Press, it is a six hundred plus page volume containing sections G-J of the FAQ. Each section is broken down into twenty or more specific questions which once posed are answered with extensive references to current research in that area.

Section G, 'Is individualist anarchism capitalistic' reveals something of the origins of the FAQ. The arguments we found most tiresome back in the 1990's were those with so called 'anarcho- capitalists'. Although this is a very rare ideology, in the early days of the web the numbers on the anarchist forums were way out of proportion with the numbers found offline - I had never in fact met one anyway. That's because the early web included a lot of techies influenced by the ideas of Ayn Rand, a Russian exile who preached a particularly anti-social message of individualism and naked capitalism.

Rand was popular with Silicon valley types, because her ideology provided them with justification for trying to enclose the commons that comprised the early internet into the 'for profit' structures that are taken for granted today. This is a tension that remains today, between those who see the internet as a personal route to becoming rich and those who see it as an important tool for the liberation of information and people. It's no coincidence that an electronic form of the FAQ has been distributed with Debian variants of Linux, including Ubuntu and Mint for many years.

Rand was for a minimal state rather than the abolition of the state, but some of those influenced by her started to promote a version in which they wanted the state entirely replaced by private security companies enforcing contract law. And some of these decided not only that this could be called anarchism but that it was the only real anarchism.

As part of that process they tried to claim the individualist anarchists as their intellectual for fathers. Section G of the FAQ started as a reply to that attempt, but today is a very detailed description of what Individualist anarchists believed and where they differed with the social anarchism or organisations like the Workers Solidarity Movement.

Section H flips the discussion of Section G on its head to look at the arguments between anarchists and the state socialists. For anyone on the left this is probably one of the most useful sections of the FAQ, covering as it does everything from looking at how Marx and those who followed him often misrepresented anarchism to a detailed account of anarchism and the Russian revolution.

Section G & H between them remind me of one of the best snippets of the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin, that "Liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality." The flip side of the anti- state capitalist embracing the early internet as a way of making profit, was the fear of much of the authoritarian left of that same technology as being beyond the grasp of their mechanism of top down control of the channels of information and debate. The point at which the FAQ has jumped from the internet into the 'real world' of inland paper has also been the point where both those tendencies have seen their dreams and fears come into being, transforming the world we all live in as they have done so. On the one hand online companies like Google & Facebook dominate the economy and our lives as the right libertarians wished while the spread of the internet into everyone's lives is bringing to an end the organisational models of the vanguardist left.

Section I will be of considerable interest to the general reader as it tries to answer the question 'What would an anarchist society look like?'. The goes from the specifics of anarchist economics, replies to the common capitalist attacks on anarchism, all the way to a detailed look at the largest attempt to put anarchism into practice on a mass scale, the Spanish Revolution. Much of this section is in fact an answer to the right libertarians and an explanation of how socialism & freedom would work together in practise. As elsewhere what is presented is not a single vision but rather the range of what anarchists have described how a free society might work.

Section J is based around the question 'What do anarchists do?' and covers key areas of organisation, direct action and involvement in social struggles. It is the closing section of the FAQ, if you include the Appendices (which have yet to appear in print form). Again this isn't a single perspective on what anarchists do, instead the various debates within anarchism and the contrasting forms of organisation anarchists advocate are sketched out.

The FAQ is not perhaps something to pick up and read cover to cover, that would be a long task. However, as well as skim reading it for the par- ticular questions you'd like to hear the answers to, I suspect it would probably also work well as
a tool for collective discussion and theoretical development by a group of people discovering or deepening their anarchism. It's not that I agree with everything it contains, but it does systematically bring together a vast body of knowledge and history in a very accessible form that can be the basis for many conversations.

Words: Andrew Flood

AFAQ page on AK Press

This article is from Irish Anarchist Review no7 - Spring 2013