More than mayhem

Alex Prichard considers the rebirth of anarchism as a scholarly subject, its future in an impact-oriented academy and its lessons for democracy

September 24, 2009

When the academic dubbed "Mr Mayhem" was suspended and then sacked from the University of East London for gross misconduct over his role in the G20 Summit protests earlier this year, the media's preferred tag for him - "anarchist" - seemed misplaced. And yet, given the levels of official paranoia in the run-up to the meeting of world leaders in London, it was also eerily evocative.

Chris Knight's widely publicised remarks grabbed countless headlines. According to many, their inflammatory tenor showed him to be an anarchist, although evidence to support that contention simply does not exist. The popular misconception that all anarchists are violent, ergo, all protesters who are violent or advocate violence must therefore be anarchists, seemed to constitute the extent of the "proof".

While the seemingly political grounds for Knight's dismissal are easy to deplore, this debacle is additionally problematic for those of us who research anarchism - and for those whose political affinities are anarchistic. Is this really the extent of the relationship between anarchism and the academy - that it drives scholars to criminality? Surely not.

Away from the fray, things are evolving in quite different ways. Writing in 2001 in what was then the Times Higher Education Supplement, Ronald Creagh, at that time the director of the Centre d'Information et de Recherche sur les Cultures d'Amerique du Nord, Montpellier, made the observation that "the world is discovering anarchist perspectives through Dadaism, surrealism, situationism, the anthropology of Pierre Clastres and the aesthetics of John Cage". He argued that a return to anarchist thought among academics might be an intellectually stimulating and worthwhile experience.

In 2005, the Political Studies Association began to support a specialist group for the study of anarchism, the Anarchist Studies Network (ASN). Since then, this group has been working hard to support the research interests of its members and to develop collective strategies to promote anarchism as a viable analytical paradigm for academic research and teaching.

For those who do not remember Creagh's article, it may come as a surprise to learn that what many considered to be a historical footnote should be inspiring an upsurge in scholarly activity. But since the World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle in 1999, anarchist-inspired research has emerged within the academy to a degree unprecedented in its colourful history. Indeed, historically, anarchists have been anything but academics.

From the outset, misconceptions about anarchism have been widespread. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's characterisation of himself as an anarchist at a time of acute political tension and populist statism sealed the legacy of anarchist thought. Proclaiming "I am an anarchist!" in his famous 1840 work, What is Property?, was, however, the conclusion to an argument that society can and should be run without sovereign or ruler (from the Greek an-archos). Proudhon was not the founder of a political philosophy that advocated chaos: order, as he was wont to remind his readers, is the genus, anarchy a species of it.

From the late 1860s to the First World War, the organised working class that considered itself anarchist, syndicalist or both, formed the mainstay of the revolutionary Left. While there has been a resurgence of historical literature that seeks to restore anarchism's place in the history of the Left and of European politics more generally, mainstream historiography by Leninists, Labourites and liberals alike has systematically caricatured, misrepresented and in some instances libelled anarchism.

It is perhaps this fact that made the 1999 protests and the re-emergence of an anarchist Left so surprising, and why the continued existence of anarchists puzzles so many: shouldn't history have consigned anarchism to Leon Trotsky's dustbin? On the other hand, it seems that history has been as unkind to Marxists as it has been to liberals and anarchists.

The re-emergence of anarchism both within and beyond the academy is reflected in anarchists being the object of study and anarchism increasingly informing research methodologies. The first ASN conference, at Loughborough University in 2008, attracted 75 papers, some on individuals in the anarchist canon, others on moments in the history of the movement. Some reflected on the meaning of revolution for anarchists in so-called postmodernity, while others looked at how anarchism, with its prioritisation of anti-authoritarianism and consensus, might inform best practice in the social sciences.

Individuals and groups gave papers that reflected on their own experiences in global-solidarity networks, in direct-action groups and on protests. These critically self-reflective papers epitomised the values of participant observation and action research, placing sensitivity and reflexivity at the heart of knowledge creation, but also prioritising the emancipatory potential of research. The MA programme in activism and social change at the University of Leeds' School of Geography investigates many of these themes directly: participation in solidarity movements, action research and advocacy are part of the curriculum. Throwing chairs through windows is not, and it is perhaps illustrative that during the recent G20 protests in London, cameramen appeared to outnumber violent protesters by ten to one. The spectacle was not the message, but that is all most people remember.

Teaching and research on anarchism raises interesting questions vis-a-vis the research assessment exercise and the forthcoming research excellence framework. Recent comments in these pages by Steve Smith, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter, suggest that there is little room for anarchist-inspired or oriented scholarship in British academia.

Where, for example, will the Higher Education Funding Council for England or big business find "bang for their buck" in anarchist studies (if you'll pardon the pun)? Will there be room for the small but vital peer-reviewed journal, Anarchist Studies? If metrics are the way forward, publishing here to a specialist audience would seem to be professional suicide, even before one considers the content of the article. If research excellence is likely to be concentrated in elite institutions, will anarchists want to work there, even if they were likely to be hired? In short, is the dreaded "A-word" a short cut to academic exile?

These structural concerns are held by many and, considered more broadly, are not problems that are necessarily exclusive to anarchist thought and studies. However, those working in this area may nevertheless wonder how far the challenging and unconventional will be accepted by those holding the purse strings.

It is partly for this reason and partly to provide support and mutual aid for research on the margins that the ASN was created. Since it was founded, we have convened half a dozen workshops and conferences and seen a dozen or so of our members complete their PhDs or DPhils on anarchist-related subjects.

Members have and are in the process of publishing monographs and edited volumes on anarchist thought. Others have sought to raise the profile of anarchism in the academy and argued for the potential contribution of anarchist academics to the wider anarchist movement. Many have spoken on national radio and participated in public debate without provoking institutional censure. To celebrate our second birthday, we even organised a piss-up in a brewery.

This September will see the first conference in living memory - co-organised by the PSA's Marxism Specialist Group and the ASN - on the intersections and tensions between the two main traditions of socialist thought over the past century and a half.

Our challenge, and this is true of most academics, is how we organise collectively to realise ends (be they political or academic) that are of our choosing in the future. In this sense, anarchism has much to offer. It is primarily the advocacy of the progressive extension of political and economic participation and provides principled and analytical critiques of the systems of representation and order that close down freedom and stifle expression.

Traditionally, the two key sites of exclusion, the state and capital, have been the main objects of critique. But the state and capital are also the hands that feed academics (and even feed each other, as the recent financial crisis has shown all too clearly). This poses acute problems for anyone, anarchist or otherwise, who chooses to mount principled critiques of state and capital and expects to be funded to do so. How anarchists fare in the academy will be a test of our democracy and may even benefit it.

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