An Anarchist FAQ, Twenty Years On

In “An Anarchist FAQ after 20 years” (Anarchist Writers, July 18), the FAQ’s principal author Iain McKay — writing as Anarcho — provides an engaging retrospective on that document.

It’s an anniversary worth celebrating for me because An Anarchist FAQ played a major formative role in my development as an anarchist. I began thinking of myself as more or less of an anarchist sometime late in 1999, I think, and encountered the FAQ about the same time I started surfing the Web. I was engaged in a haphazard and uneven course of general reading on anarchism at the time, and systematically reading through An Anarchist FAQ made an immense contribution to my general knowledge. The only other roughly comparable influences for me were my first reading of Tucker’s Instead of a Book, and devouring Chomsky’s work on the history of imperialism and U.S. foreign policy.

That’s not to say that my appreciation for the FAQ is uncritical, by any means.

Probably the most controversial aspect of the FAQ centers on the main reason it was written in the first place — to challenge Bryan Caplan’s framing of “left-anarchism” and “right-anarchism” (i.e. “anarcho-capitalism”) as equally valid branches within the larger anarchist family tree. On that question I would have to agree with McKay that anarcho-capitalism as such is not part of the historic anarchist movement, although I don’t feel all that strongly about it.

My main caveats in agreeing are two. First, that some borderline intellectual figures are pretty squishy when it comes to whether they are an-caps as such or genuine anarchists. And second, as anarchist historian Shawn Wilbur has argued in assorted informal venues, self-proclaimed an-caps can be divided (through a sort of anarchist version of the Catholic baptism of desire) into “anarcho”-capitalists and anarcho-“capitalists.” The latter, while identifying as anarcho-capitalists, may actually be authentic anarchists (or at least approach authentic anarchism) without knowing it.

Both states of affairs can probably be attributed, as Wilbur argues, to the rancorous split between individualist and communist anarchists in the late 19th century, and the absorption of most of the individualists in the early 19th century into right-libertarianism and capitalist-funded propaganda networks. So a lot of people who get many or most of their ideas from the left-wing and anti-capitalist currents of 19th century individualism find themselves working under a right-wing label.

From what I’ve seen, there are a fair number of nominal “an-caps” who 1) tend to emphasize the propertied classes as the primary beneficiaries of state action, 2) emphasize the potential for worker cooperatives and other forms of solidaritarian organization in a freed market, 3) include the wage system as one of the negative side-effects of state-business collusion, and 4) are more interested in complementary currencies than hard money goldbug crap. Many such people are probably anarchists in spirit, even if outside the visible anarchist movement.

At one time I resented what I perceived as a condescending attitude towards individualists, as opposed to social anarchists, on the part of the FAQ. The market socialist model of thinkers from Warren through Tucker were acknowledged — if grudgingly — as genuine anarchists, but of a markedly inferior sort compared to the main currents of social anarchism. I’ve gradually moved from individualism to identifying as an anarchist without adjectives over the past few years — an amalgam of markets, peer-production, natural resource commons, and communist direct production for use — so I’m considerably less irked by this than I used to be.

If there’s one thing I object to, it’s the valorization of insurrectionary or revolutionary models of change, as opposed to gradualist — not “reformist” — models like autonomism that focus on building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old one.

None of this, however, detracts from the monumental nature of the FAQ as a resource. It might just as well be called The Encyclopedia of Anarchism. As a reference work, it’s easily navigable through its meticulously organized table of contents (especially if you use the internally hyperlinked online version rather than the two volume hard copy). And the major sections and subsections, like the articles in a good encyclopedia, are enjoyable stand-alone reading.

For researching any topic like the history or structural critiques of capitalism, critical anarchist analysis of Marxism-Leninism and the like, carefully digging through the relevant material in the FAQ and following its citations to the original sources is a winning strategy.

It’s impossible to overestimate the value of An Anarchist FAQ as an educational and research tool, or the amount of careful work that went into it. For this, we all owe McKay and his co-authors a debt of gratitude.

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist