By Kathy Labriola
I rarely write book reviews, but this book got me so excited I just had to share my enthusiasm! This compact little PM Press book is essentially an extended conversation between two amazing British anarchist writers, editors, and activists. Weighing in at just 165 pages, it is jam-packed with anarchist history, events, and ideas, and is the one book I would give to anyone who wants to understand what anarchism is all about.
Colin Ward was a working-class kid who dropped out of school at age 15 in 1939, and was quickly drafted by the British Army during World War II. During the war, he happened upon an anarchist bookshop and became a lifelong anarchist, editing the anarchist journal “Freedom” and eventually founding the journal “Anarchy” which he edited for decades. He was a tireless anarchist speaker and writer, eventually writing 30 books on the subject. David Goodway is a British social and cultural historian whose best-known book is “Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow.” He had the opportunity to interview Colin Ward at length, over a period of months, just before Ward’s death in 2010 at the age of 86. Talking Anarchy is the result of those interviews, published in the US earlier this year. Goodway also mentions in the book his conversion to anarchism due to being exposed to “anarchist propaganda” in a left-wing bookstore. This should be a strong reminder to us all of the importance of anarchist infoshops and bookstores and of anarchist publications such as Slingshot that spread these ideas far and wide.
Despite being a card-carrying anarchist since 1968, I have successfully avoided reading Kropotkin, Bakunin, Read, Bookchin, and all the other anarchist heavyweights. I am embarrassed to confess that I always found them tedious and maddeningly abstract and irrelevant to present-day reality. Ward’s take on anarchism is refreshingly practical and tied to our current challenges of creating meaningful work, affordable housing, useful and child-centric education and child-care, building meaningful community, and doing effective political organizing.
Ward emphasizes the importance of tenants taking control of their buildings, of students and parents organizing for more humane and relevant education, and for alternative forms of work such as worker co-ops and individuals working independently rather than for an employer. He sees all these as ways of living our anarchist beliefs by demonstrating that people can create the forms of organization that they need and can empower themselves to be in charge of their lives on as many fronts as possible without coercion or guidance from an authoritarian state. For instance, he talks about the importance of individuals and groups of people in cities growing as much of our own food as possible, providing for ourselves and being more food self-sufficient. All such self-help and mutual aid projects prove that anarchism works, that people at a individual and/or local level are competent to decide what our communities need, and then create our own ways to meet those needs. His approach seems very focused on putting anarchist practices into action to solve the lief-threatening problems created by capitalism and imperialism. In another example, he says that squatting vacant buildings shows the irrational and barbaric nature of capitalism, a system that allows housing to sit vacant while people are homeless and freezing in the streets, and that people can take action to house themselves.
Of particular interest to me, as a deranged militant feminist, are Ward and Goodway’s discussion of the historical importance of anarchists, from Emma Goldman to Alex Comfort and many others, in challenging and successfully overturning the sexist and sex-negative attitudes and laws in Britain, in advocating for the right to birth control, abortion, sexual freedom, and equality for women. Ward reminds us that people today cannot even imagine the rigid and suffocating sexual repression, ignorance, and rigid sex roles of compulsory heterosexual marriage that were the rule as recently as the early 1960’s. They emphasize the dramatic changes that have occurred in a very short time, and the role that anarchists have played in fighting for equal rights for women and for sexual freedom for all. They both see the rights of each person to control their bodies, their sex lives, and their relationship choices as core anarchist values, because people are competent to create their own relationships, families, and communities without direction or restriction from the state.
And Ward talks extensively about the central role women have played in founding and sustaining anarchist organizations in the UK. He notes that women often do the constant, unglamorous, and usually unpaid work of producing publications, distributing literature, staffing bookstores, handling mailings, organizing meetings and events, and raising funds. Interestingly, he stresses the importance of community-building and friendship networks in building and maintaining any political movement, and that this relational work of keeping people connected and creating strong relationships is usually done by women, while too often the men pontificate and fight amongst themselves.
Ward quotes frequently throughout the book from many anarchist writers, some totally fascinating and exciting stuff! Some of the books he quotes are from the usual suspects, but many were from books and anarchists I had never even heard of. Ironically, despite my afore-mentioned aversion to anarchist theory, by the time I finished the book, I had jotted down a long list of anarchist books that I intend to read!