Uri Gordon: Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory

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Uri Gordon Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, Pluto Press: London, 2007; 208 pp.: 0745326838 16.99 [pounds sterling] (pbk)

In 2004, David Graeber (2004: 2) noted that although 'anarchism is veritably exploding right now', academia has failed to keep up, offering little other than caricatured understandings of a complex movement. Whilst he was perhaps overstating his case a little, even then, Uri Gordon's Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory shows that a thoughtful, nuanced understanding of contemporary anarchism is not an impossibility in the university. Developed from his Ph.D. thesis (written at Oxford University, no less) it offers a compelling vision of an ideological movement whose relevance now is even stronger than it was in 2004.

The subtitle of Gordon's work talks of a move 'from practice to theory', inverting the more standard approach of books which proclaim the relevance of a particular political ideology. Yet Gordon's book actually goes further, undermining the dichotomy between practice and theory: it is perhaps best thought of as a work of praxis, in which theory and practice are irreducibly bound together in a mutually reinforcing relationship. It is a work which puts 'organisation, action and lifestyle on the same footing with ideas and theories' (p. 27), and what results is that each of these facets of anarchism asks awkward questions of the others such that a precise definition of 'anarchism' can never be established. Any initial fears that encoding key issues in anarchist practice into a work of theory might bring about an ossification of the movement are thus unfounded, and despite a cautiously optimistic tone throughout, Anarchy Alive! is bookended with assertions that its purpose is to ask 'relevant questions' (p. 7), and that 'there are more questions than answers' (p. 164). Indeed, the book's refusal to fix the meaning of anarchism once and for all--and the liveliness of the debates it draws on--perhaps offers an answer to the questions Sartre posed in Critique of Dialectical Reason, where he wondered how it was possible for revolutionary politics to avoid ossification into bureaucratic forms of organisation, killing its vitality (Sartre, 2004).

It may seem odd, then, that Gordon considers anarchism an 'ideology'--a concept often seen by many anarchists as the site of precisely such ossification (see McQuinn, 2011; Landstreicher, 2001). Yet drawing on the work of his Oxford supervisor Michael Freeden, Gordon instead argues that 'ideologies are not irrational dogmas or forms of "false consciousness"' but rather are 'paradigms that people use ... to handle ideas that are essentially contested in political language' (p. 20). This view of ideology poses no threat to Rudy Rocket's understanding of anarchism (which Gordon quotes approvingly) as offering 'no patent solution for human problems ... It does not believe in any absolute truth, or in definite final goals for human development' (p. 43).

It is to the current framing of the paradigms central to anarchism that Gordon turns in Chapter 2, where--as throughout the book--he draws predominantly on his experiences in anarchist struggles across Europe and the Middle East, and on the literature developed from these struggles: webzines, photocopied pamphlets, Indymedia postings and DIY documentary films. From this, he argues that the three core concepts for the ideology of anarchism are domination, prefiguration and diversity/open-endedness, but that the meanings and relationships of these 'are constantly refrained and recoded in response to world events, political alliances and trends in direct-action culture, evolving through intense flows of communication and discussion, and through innumerable experiences and experiments' (p. 28).

Gordon's familiarity with the multifarious debates of contemporary anarchism means that his work is imbued with an intrinsic understanding of the subtleties of anarchism that is lost in the caricatures of which Graeber speaks sorrowfully. …