I took this book on as part of my endeavor to understand politics better. The crap that gets published with the label “politics” these days is at best a talking head with a poorly formed opinion and at worst thinly veiled bigotry and intolerance. I purposely selected a few political texts I had at my disposal in an effort to learn more about different modes of government outside the context of what is best deemed “pop politics.” The only reason I got my hands on this was my dear friend Hanniel and her graciousness in letting me borrow it for the last four months; I would otherwise have been unaware of its existence.
Demanding the Impossible sets out to show the reader not just what anarchism is and the contexts in which it developed, but also to demonstrate its validity as a potential form of society, one where central government doesn’t exist. The author, Peter Marshall, paints this picture of anarchism as a massive river with many streams and tributaries flowing into it. No one tradition can be called anarchism, and many traditions ancient and contemporary contribute to anarchist thought in one way or another, and Marshall works to show how even the most ancient and sometimes seemingly alien traditions (Christianity, for example) are a part of the huge body of water that is anarchism.
Simply put, my understanding of anarchism was changed within the first fifty pages of this 800-page text. I didn’t think anarchy was stupid; if anything I thought it was perhaps a little naive, but Marshall turned the tables on me quickly and outlined the numerous understandings of decentralized government and the men and women who contributed their thoughts to this great philosophy. By page 100, I felt like more than an expert on the subject. By the time I was finished, I felt like I knew more than I ever wanted to know on anarchism, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
There’s a couple things I really liked about this book:
- Marshall is incredibly thorough in his research, and demonstrates a good understanding of the traditions he speaks of, even the non-anarchist writings, such as Taoism and Christianity. He treats every single thinker he puts in this book with deep respect without betraying a bias to any one in particular (though he seemed to like Bakunin and Kropotkin quite a bit). At 800 pages, there’s no way you couldn’t articulate anarchism better than anyone who’s ever explained it to you before.
- It’s not a thick, heavy read. Most books like this are so academic that most of the information flies over your head. Not this one. He talks to you like a good professor would, like someone who loves what they’re teaching and wants you to love it too.
- He doesn’t judge anyone for disagreeing with him. If you do a Google search of anarchism, you’ll get a lot of cheaply made sites of angry twenty-somethings who read some Chomsky in college and now want to lash out at government and religion on the Internet, calling everyone sheep who doesn’t see things their way. Marshall works hard to invite people to get a clear picture of anarchism without looking down his nose at his readers, and that means a lot.
- This book was WAY more than I needed to understand anarchism, but that’s no fault of the author. I really just wanted a good survey of anarchist understanding, one that didn’t make me feel like crap for being OK with the existence of a supreme deity, and I got a heck of a lot more than that. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t skip a chapter or two out of disinterest, or that I didn’t get pretty bored with some of the thinkers he was talking about (Proudhoun I found to be really unimpressive). It really can be a bit of an information overload sometimes.
- This is more of a jab at anarchist thought itself, but most of the authors Marshall draws from for his information were upper class white men who seemed to just want to sleep with any woman they wanted (the only woman he focuses on in-depth is Emma Goldman). This isn’t true of some of the main anarchist authors (William Godwin, for example), but these thoughts are somewhat developed in a very privileged context. This doesn’t invalidate the ideas themselves at all, but it’s worth considering.
Now, after all that, am I an anarchist? No, not exactly. I understand the value of anarchist thought and have no choice but to consider it a valid opinion, but I can’t say I’m completely for the dismantling of government. I think it COULD happen, but I don’t know if humanity is there yet. We’re working towards some sort of change in how we view each other as human beings, but we’re pretty far from operating without a decentralized government, even if the government we have is corrupt.
I hate that I have to give this book back, because I’m deeming it a necessity for my shelves. I will be purchasing this book soon. Check it out!