First Impression: Michael Malice’s The Anarchist Handbook

Michael Malice is a brilliant writer and enigmatic celebrity, so I’ll let him introduce himself before I introduce his work:

Michael Malice is the author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il and The New Right. He is also the organizer of the forthcoming The Anarchist Handbook, currently scheduled for release sometime last year. Malice is notorious for writing about himself in such a way as to confuse and annoy the reader, for no discernable purpose whatsoever.

Michael Malice, The Anarchist Handbook

As an anarchist without adjectives, Malice seeks to present a broad variety of anarchist thought. My own background, coming from a right-Tolstoyan perspective, differs as far as much as night differs from day when compared some of the thinkers he includes (e.g. Plunkett, whose essay “Dynamite!” is featured in The Anarchist Handbook).

I do not endorse these ways of thinking, but Malice’s intent in presenting them is as a historian and curator of thought.

It is from this perspective, then, that we should address Malice’s decisions in putting together the book, which is predominantly focused on presenting the work of others.

Hoch die Anarchie!

The first chapter, however, is Malice’s introduction to anarchism as a concept.

In one sense, anarchism is nothing more than the declaration that “You do not speak for me.” Everything else is just implementation.

Michael Malice, The Anarchist Handbook

One of Malice’s strengths is that by his conversations with people across the political spectrum and his deep appreciation of a variety of forms of thought he has cultivated an unrivaled ability to present ideas clearly.

First, he is able to explain what the various perceptions about anarchism are and where they are correct or incorrect. He does this by drawing skillful analogies, but also by wielding examples and descriptions that are simple while respecting the reader’s intelligence.

I could simply make this section of quotes from Malice’s text, because he has written it so neatly that it is hard to do justice with either a summary or a recreation of his points.

However, he is keen to point out that the average understanding of anarchism comes from a fundamentally flawed point of reference. It is that those who are accustomed to the state are like fish in a bowl. When one fish comments about how the water is nice, the other replies “What water?”

So it is that the average person, when asked about the function and role of the state in society, will reply “What state?”

It is not, of course, academic ignorance or an inability to perceive the functions of government that causes this, but rather the fact that the modern nation-state is a nearly universal concept, and where the modern-state cannot currently be found there are even more repressive regimes such as theocracies or bands of warlords. We should be careful not to needlessly besmirch the bands of warlords, since many of them are less intrusive and violent than major nation-states such as China, whose ruling regime uses rape as a standard form of torture).

As far as introductions to anarchism as a concept, it is hard to conceive of one that is any better than Malice’s opening chapter, or one that will explain its subject to as broad an audience while retaining its appeal.

Another point to raise is that each of the introductions to the authors he features is of excellent quality, presented fairly and with an emphasis on their focus.

The Selections: Early Anarchists

William Godwinson is the first selected writer.

If that name sounds familiar, it could be that he is known for his utilitarian philosophy outside anarchism, or for his daughter, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.

The passage selected is from Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, and will seem familiar to those who have read Spooner, though Godwin’s style is different and, I think, perhaps more analytical.

Stirner is the next section. I would have chosen different parts of Stirner had I excerpted his The Ego and Its Own, but the text that Malice chose is probably the best passage of Stirner to pick from an anarchist’s perspective: it is just a shame that his excellent wheels in the head passage is much earlier.

Here, however, Malice deserves a point of honor for explaining Stirner’s theories clearly and concisely without a waste of time.

I am unfamiliar with Proudhon, but the passage that Malice has suggested seems to be cogent and striking, though I cannot assess it within the context of his greater work.

The selection from Herbert Spencer’s work is interesting. Like Proudhon, I have no personal familiarity with Spencer, but I am familiar with his work and theories from second-hand exposure (primarily through Rothbard).

The interesting thing here is that Malice has taken an essay from Social Statics, which was Spencer’s work of political philosophy. As a corollary to the opening chapter, I think it holds fantastic promise.

American Anarchists

Here I begin the distinction between American individualist anarchism and European collectivist anarchism. This may seem to be an odd distinction to draw, and it is one that Malice makes in passing but does not necessarily label his subjects with. It is also not something that is wise to pursue from a dogmatic perspective: Stirner, an egoist, would resemble American anarchist thought much more than some of the left-anarchists despite his Hegelian influences.

Josiah Warren comes up as one of the first examples. While we might from a modern perspective consider him to be economically left-wing, like the European anarchists, but his emphasis on SELF-SOVEREIGNTY (emphasis his) comes across as a clear parallel.

I am not too familiar with his work, so I cannot speak to the quality of the included passage, but it seems to be cogent and fit within the context of this school of thought.

Next from the American context is Lysander Spooner, whose The Constitution of No Authority is excerpted. Malice has chosen the passage I would consider to be the best, and he brings his own wit to the introduction to Spooner, saying more in a short paragraph than countless scholars have managed to achieve in their approach to the only true Postmaster General in American history.

Then there is Tucker, whose work influenced me in my younger days before I discovered the modern right-anarchists. While Tucker’s views would change over the course of his writing, I think Malice chooses the best possible elucidation of Tucker’s unique contributions to anarchism (which he calls socialism in places, a factor that may confuse modern audiences since one of his “socialisms” is really individualist anarchism).

Early Left-Anarchists

In the early left-anarchists I am including Bakunin, Most, Lingg, and Kropotkin.

Bakunin is a famous and influential writer, but I am not particularly familiar with his work. He is correct in seeing the danger of authoritarian Communism, which is at least something that can be stated in his favor.

Johann Most’s work is tied to revolutionary anarchism. He is the reason why the term anarchist is synonymous with violence in the UK (something we can see in the Sex Pistols’ work). While I consider his philosophy reprehensible, there is no reason to white-wash this part of history.

It may not be fair to include as much about Lingg, because he is notable for his role as one of the Haymarket martyrs; his legal defense has been popularized as “I couldn’t have thrown that bomb, I was at home making bombs.” The passage that Malice includes doesn’t necessarily reflect any particular affiliation. I include Lingg with the left-anarchists because I associate that faction with Haymarket, not because his statements are particularly attached to left-anarchism.

Next, we have Kropotkin. One of the leading left-anarchists/anarcho-communists, he is incredibly influential. His The Conquest of Bread is also a popular meme among the right-anarchist circles because we have managed to move beyond bread through a recognition of market forces and their role in autonomous organization, but Kropotkin’s confused thinking does not hinder the fact that Malice has chosen a passage considered iconic of his work.

I’m not familiar enough with these writers to judge Malice on whether he has done faithfulness to the original visions of their work, but I suspect he has because he rarely errs elsewhere.

Tolstoy

As a political Tolstoyan, I am familiar with the work of Tolstoy.

Malice has selected a passage from “The Slavery of Our Times.” It is an accurate exemplar of Tolstoy’s anarcho-pacifism and Christian (barring his heretical beliefs) anarchism. There are elements here that evoke Boétie, whose Discourse on Voluntary Servitude would have been an interesting subject for inclusion (though Boétie does not really consider himself an anarchist, he is generally considered a forefather of peaceful anarchism).

It is worth noting that Tolstoy’s philosophy is worth studying in its own, because it is both unique in context (shaping later thinkers in the American/individualist anarchist traditions and also non-anarchists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi) and because it has a flavor and quality that is not found elsewhere.

The Red Anarchists

I’m calling this particular subset the Red Anarchists not because of their political affiliations but because of the Red Scare that they were swept up in.

Berkman’s “Prisons and Crime” is featured here, and deals with crime in an anarchist framework. It’s interesting, though I have some qualms with Berkman’s own violent methods (ironically, Most, whose work is itself revolutionary in nature, disavowed Berkman).

The essay is, unlike the selection from Most’s work, actually quite in line with modern thought from both a right and left anarchist perspective, especially as it pertains to the rejection of “reform” as a valid aim for incarceration.

Voltairine de Cleyre comes up next, with a passage on American anarchism. I am not familiar with her work, but it seems interesting and is a good perspective to take from an American perspective, presaging Rothbard’s later approach to revisionist American history.

Then there is Emma Goldman. Malice loves Goldman, and while I am not familiar with her work (she is a left-anarchist), the excerpt seems to be well-selected.

Plunkett’s “Dynamite!” is a revolutionary anarchist work that was sufficiently extreme that it “disquieted even Emma Goldman” according to Malice, and its inclusion is interesting. The prose is florid, and while I do not know how much influence Plunkett had on the left-anarchists his rhetoric is interesting, even if his conclusions are antithetical to my own.

Right-Anarchists (or, Anarcho-Capitalists)

The next group of figures can be referred to broadly as anarcho-capitalists.

Malice includes the Tannehills’ work on market-driven security services as an alternative to a state justice system. It’s not strictly anarchistic, since the Tannehils’ are taking an economic approach to the problem, but it evokes the same theory as Rothbard’s Constitution of Liberty in a much more concise format.

Next is David Friedman, son of Milton Friedman. A prominent anarcho-capitalist, but one who comes from a Chicago School perspective rather than an Austrian School perspective, I cannot really assess his work merely from perusing the sample Malice includes but will return for a more detailed analysis at a later date.

Then Malice includes the complete text of Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State. While Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism is perhaps not fully expressed in this essay, it would be hard to find an equivalent exploration of the anarchist conception of the state (transcending the differences between the different schools of anarchist thought). It is superb and worth the cost of admission, should one not already have a copy of Anatomy of the State.

Last but not least is John Hasnas. I do not know for certain about how Hasnas would represent himself, but his work seems to be associated with the Austrian economics-aligned theories, including Rothbard, so I am including him here with the anarcho-capitalists. Since he is living and his work has been reproduced with permission, I presume that the work selected is of high quality.

Wrapping Up

Michael Malice’s The Anarchist Handbook (Amazon affiliate link) is an eclectic collection of thinkers from across the whole field of early modern to contemporary anarchist thought.

I’d highly recommend it for anyone who wants to familiarize themselves with anarchism from an academic perspective, which includes two excellent pieces by the author (both in the initial chapter and as the final selection in the piece) alongside almost two dozen excellent essays from prominent thinkers and historical figures.

It is not a book of narrow consensus seeking political gain by enforcing a particular view of anarchism, though it may draw some ire from the left-anarchists for its inclusion of anarcho-capitalist thinkers (in part because they have to deal with the fact that they have not produced any work in the late twentieth century that merits inclusion, though they would be unlikely to permit their writing to share space with that of right-wing anarchists even if they had). As a result, it is suitable for those who seek to evaluate the thinking of various individuals.

There are things, of course, that the likes of Lingg and Plunkett endorse and which I find reprehensible, but that is not a reason against remembering their arguments: we would do better to use words, reason, and capitalism rather than coercion, violence, and socialism to achieve our goals, and part of doing that is assessing the words and reasoning of other people to determine where they have gone astray.

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