Marx moves over to make room for new lot of rebels

October 12, 2001

The fall of the house of Marx and the end of the cold war have led to a decline in labour history that has affected social history in general because, as Patrick Joyce writes: "The basic repertoire of concepts in social history was (and remains) identifiably Marxist..." But Marxism's demise may explain the reappearance of anarchism, even if it is not yet a credible alternative.

Anarchism is resurgent not because of specific organisations but because of a deep and diffuse world view that contemporary events have imposed on even the most conformist: a distrust of grand narratives; a rejection of all forms of representation; a challenging of the impunity of the political establishment; and new forms of collective consciousness based on ethnicity or affinity groups.

In the past, geographers refused to recognise such luminaries as Pietr Kropotkin or Elisee Reclus. Sociologists laughed at or ignored the first non-academic anarchists, such as Josiah Warren in America. The same neglect for important anarchist thinkers has occurred in other fields such as education and psychotherapy. And where are the studies on writers such as Paul Goodman, who influenced so many people in his time? As for history, the situation is appalling: who knows the part anarchists played in the liberation of Sicily, Milan or Paris during the second world war?

Universities have consistently overlooked anarchism. Despite some remarkable but scattered studies in various fields, academics have never tried to form a school of thought based on anarchist paradigms, similar to critical philosophy or Marxist scholarship. There are no grants for anarchist studies and hardly any publisher accepts a scholarly work on anarchism that is not critical of the movement. In countries such as France and Italy, a doctoral thesis on anarchism is unlikely to get anyone a job in a university.

Most research on anarchism - and the best - is done outside academia. Journals such as Anarchist Studies , Social Anarchism and Rivista storica dell'anarchismo and symposia such as the recent one in Venice on Jewish anarchist intellectuals are private initiatives with no official subsidy. The same is true for anarchist research centres or learned societies, such as the International Research Centre on Anarchism in Lausanne.

Nevertheless in the past few years, it has become easier to appraise the works of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Max Stirner or to interpret Spinoza's thought in the light of Gilles Deleuze's Nietzscheanism. Among recent scholarly innovations are a critique of language and symbolism and anthropological studies on the state's role in terrorism. Although liberalism reigns supreme in economic studies and political science remains mute about alternatives to the concept of the state, there has been a slow rediscovery of the links between anarchism, modernity and postmodernity in literature, cinema and art.

While the day has not come when Mikhail Bakunin can play a big role in textbooks, the world is discovering anarchist perspectives through Dadaism, surrealism, situationism, the anthropology of Pierre Clastres and the aesthetics of John Cage. But this new view of the past requires an extensive effort to grasp current trends in anarchist thinking.

Ronald Creagh is a director of the Centre d'Information et de Recherche sur les Cultures d'Amerique du Nord, Montpellier, France.

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