‘A Book in Five Minutes’ no.21
View the accompanying video on YouTube video

Anarchy –
A Graphic Guide

Clifford Harper (1987)

The simple guide to all strands of anarchist thought… with fun graphics.

‘A Book in Five Minutes’ No.21 Podcast:

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Cover of ‘Anarchy – A Graphic Guide’, 1987 first edition
‘Anarchy – A Graphic Guide’:

First Edition, Campden Press, 1987. ISBN 9780-9484-9122-1.

Second Edition, AK Press Distribution, 2007. ISBN 9781-9048-5934-5.

“Let them eat cake”. OK, but what if they have no cake? Anarchist thinkers often focussed on food; and my personal focus on how to ‘live freely’ also concentrates on how we secure our need for food. But how did I start on that path?

Published thirty-five years ago, this book is a simple, comprehensive, diverse, and more importantly, fun!, exploration of anarchism. Based on many different anarchist texts, it’s one of the best introductions to the history and theory and anarchism I’ve found. It avoids the often dry, academic prose of other guides for an involving narrative and attractive graphics.

What it seeks to demonstrate is not so much what anarchism ‘is’, but the broad field of anarchist ideas that have existed for centuries.

I’m a working class ‘Gen-Xer’, from a small town out in the sticks. When punk came along I couldn’t afford the clothes, or trips to London to see concerts. Instead, what I got from punk was the ‘do-it-yourself’ ethic – I ‘punked’ my outlook, and my attitudes, rather than just the clothes I wore or the music I listened to.

‘Punk is support, not competition’

That attitude inevitably brought me to anarchism. At first that meant reading a few books by anarchist thinkers. But it was this book – which I bought around 1987 or ‘88 when it was published – that really opened-up the full range of anarchist thinking, and gave me direction to express my ideas deliberately in the way I chose to live.

One of the reasons you are reading, watching, or listening to this today is not so much because of the words in the book; but the direction those words gave me to explore ‘the rabbit hole’ of anarchist thinking.

We can start with some of the earliest anarchists, such as William Godwin:

“With what delight must every well-informed friend of mankind look forward to the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of humankind, and which has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and not otherwise to be removed than by its utter annihilation!”

William Godwin: ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness’ (1793)

When the world was simple, and people lived more directly with agriculture and small industries, anarchist ideas were focussed on the relationship between people’s needs, and access to the land or resources to meet them. Early anarchism was mainly about ‘cutting out the middle men’ of government and corporations, so that we might all share in the natural resources the Earth provides.

What changed that, in the Nineteenth Century, was the full force of industrialisation, and how it severed people from the land, making them mere cogs in the overwhelming machine of capitalism.

As Proudhon said:

“If I were asked to answer the question: ‘What is slavery?’ and I should answer in one word, ‘Murder!’, my meaning would be understood at once. No further argument would be needed to show that the power to take from someone their thought, their will, their personality, is a power of life and death, and that to enslave a human is to kill them. Why, then, to this other question: ‘What is property?’ may I not likewise answer, ‘Theft’?”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: ‘What is Property?’ (1840)

Anarchist ideals are often phrased around the community – the ‘commune’. That’s because – contrary to the hyper-individualism of later libertarian capitalists – we can’t be wholly self-sufficient. Therefore, the struggle we engage in is to find a balance where we can all participate, equally, in the process of meeting our needs, and through that to express our individual human identity.

Or as Kropotkin put it:

‘Anarchist lifeboats’

“...when these days shall come – and it is for you to hasten their coming – when a whole region, when great towns with their suburbs shall shake off their rulers, our work is clear; all equipment must return to the community, the social means held by individuals must be restored to their true owners – everybody, so that each may have his full share in consumption, that production may continue in everything that is necessary and useful, and that social life, far from being interrupted, may be resumed with the greatest energy.”

Peter Kropotkin, quoted in ‘The Anarchist Prince’ by Woodcock & Avakumovic (1950)

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, annihilation by nuclear conflict seemed an ever-present danger – just as today the focus is on climate change. The answer to both is to tackle the possessive, controlling nature of the industrial state, and the governments who work primarily for the owners of the state’s wealth and resources.

...and guess what! The media seldom talk of or explains that perspective – which again is why books like this are so important.

It may be we can’t avoid a catastrophic failure of industrial capitalism – by war or ecological collapse. Anarchists have already thought about that. Most notably Durruti:

“We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities... We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.”

Buenaventura Durruti, interview published in Toronto Star (1936)

Cover of ‘Anarchism – A History Of Libertarian Ideas And Movements’, George Woodcock (1962)
‘Anarchism – A History Of Libertarian Ideas And Movements’, George Woodcock (1962) – click link for access to a free copy
Cover of ‘No Gods, No Masters’, Daniel Guérin (1980)
‘No Gods, No Masters’, Daniel Guérin (1980) – click link for access to a free copy

There are some truly great books on anarchist ideas: Daniel Guérin’s ‘No Gods, No Masters’; or George Woodcock’s, ‘Anarchism: A History’. But unless you have a burning desire for their gratuitous detail, those tomes are not going to catch your interest.

I think this book is one of the most effective introductions to the history of anarchist ideas because – literally – it paints pictures rather than making arguments. It allows people to find their place in the pantheon of anarchist thought, rather than telling them what to think. And, of course, the lovely graphics are just icing on that particular cake.

Some after-thoughts... an introduction

As this is the twenty-first review, I thought perhaps I should review how this idea has developed over the last year or so.

The point of, ‘A Book in Five Minutes’, is to digest the essence of a book into a series of short quotes and descriptions – so that people may have their interest captured, and perhaps get a copy of the book to read in full.

Over recent months, a number of people have said they’d love to have a more general description about each book, and its significance. Problem is, you can’t do that in ‘five minutes’ – which would defeat the purpose of why I write these deliberately ‘short’ reviews.

To try and answer that demand, I thought, rather than change the format, I’d just add to it. Not by lengthening the review, but instead, with a swish of a Bagpuss-esque auto-harp, adding some free-form ideas which are absolutely not within the historic context of the book – to bring people up-to-date.

Let’s get started:

Some after-thoughts on, ‘Anarchy – a Graphic Guide’

‘Anarchism’ is Utopian; Utopias are never meant to be attained – otherwise they wouldn’t be ‘Utopian’. When it comes to anarchism people have a problem with that idea, because it leaves the future open to interpretation: An unwritten script, with only vague stage directions, which you have to improvise as you go.

Reading, ‘Anarchy – A Graphic Guide’, allowed me to understand that: To resolve the conflict between the mainstream media and political portrayal of ‘anarchism’ as a ‘lack of order’; versus the central idea of anarchism, which is that a truly democratic order is something created ‘horizontally’, between people, not ‘vertically’ under an imposed hierarchy of control.

Like the book’s author, I chose to end the review with Durruti’s famous quote because, in all honesty, the capitalist mode of production has driven the entire planet to the verge of destruction. How ‘bad’ things get is not merely an issue of how long that system can perpetuate itself, but of how long centrist ‘reformers’ prop-up that system by trying to ameliorate those deleterious impacts.

Front cover of ‘Mother Earth’, published by Emma Goldman (1906)
Front cover of ‘Mother Earth’, published by Emma Goldman (1906)

In order to drastically reduce our footprint on the Earth, we – the 10% of the global population who consume over half of everything, and who are the most likely group to be reading this – have to not only radically curtail our consumption; we have to radically re-localise in order to ensure that local ecological conditions are assessed and properly considered under local decision-making.

In the years since the publication of the book, I think there are three major changes to the ‘knowledge base’ of anarchism, and anthropology generally, which are worth adding to the book’s scope:

Firstly, the rising role of indigenous people’s knowledge, of self-governance and communal decision-making, that the West has long ignored. This was discussed recently in Graeber & Wengrow’s, ‘The Dawn of Everything’. I’d also recommend Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s, ‘An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States’. Other researchers are also highlighting the role that indigenous knowledge has played in ‘civilising’ Western ideas – such as the influence of the Blackfoot Confederacy on the origins of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. And generally, indigenous knowledge is being identified as a major part of how we adapt to a more ecologically perilous world.

Secondly, we need more contemporary anarchist thinkers, who are dealing with the world as it is, because that world is now so far outside the world-view of classical anarchism. For example, although Murray Bookchin gets a mention, in the years since the book was published the significance of Bookchin’s ideas on self-organising movements has grown – the most well-known example being Rojava.

Finally, related to the above, perhaps the most significant thing missing from the book is an analysis of technology, and how technology extends the power of late stage capitalism by further subjugating people to the priorities of the modern workplace. The book ignores technology, as both a force for hierarchical control, and for decentralised liberation. Today, the role of technology, especially in the rise of neo-feudalism through digital platforms, is absolutely critical to any realistic discussion of anarchism.

So, I commend to you Clifford Harper’s wonderful book that, 35 years after I first read it, still dazzles in its ability to synthesise the ideas of anarchism across the centuries in less than 200 pages.

Now of course, for those watching the video, what has dominated my review of the book have been scenes of gratuitous chocolate cake making. As I opened with, anarchism and food have a long history – one which I still cherish.

In that vein, and to extend a point made above, I’ll leave you with this from Murray Bookchin – which advances the idea that true anarchist organisation relies on groups of conscious, self-motivating individuals, not of collective ‘class consciousness’:

‘In a system that profits from your fear and self-doubt, trusting yourself is a rebellious act!’

“There can be no society based on self-management without self-activity. Indeed, revolution is self-activity in its most advanced form: direct action carried to the point where the streets, the land, and the factories are appropriated by the autonomous people. Until this order of consciousness is attained, consciousness at least on the social level remains mass consciousness, the object of manipulation by elites. If for this reason alone, authentic revolutionaries must affirm that the most advanced form of class consciousness is self-consciousness: the individuation of the ‘masses’ into conscious beings who can take direct, unmediated control of society and of their own lives. If only for this reason, too, authentic revolutionaries must affirm that the only real ‘seizure of power’ by the ‘masses’ is the dissolution of power: the power of human over human, of town over country, of state over community, and of mind over sensuousness.”

Murray Bookchin: ‘Spontaneity and Organisation’, from ‘Toward an Ecological Society’ (1980)