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Questioning assumptions - Anarchism and Historiography

by Bob James
April 1999

Enquirers about Anarchism are more often than not mired in assumptions, and unless they're prepared to question those assumptions, I'm not interested in talking with them - indeed, I have nothing to say to them.

Start with Anarchism itself - what do you mean by the word? Immediately followed by: what does person X have to do to be an 'anarchist'? If that's not enough, what else?

Then, what justifies the claimed relationship of Anarchism to Socialism? to Libertarian? to radical? to freedom? What do you understand by 'anarchist influence'?

Most, if not all, books about Anarchism have been begun with no clear ideas about any of this, just assumptions. When they have attempted to mix theory with 'history', especially when it's not personal, eye-witness stuff, but based on what previous theoreticians have written, errors of fact and of logic are recycled.

History, to be 'history', requires the evidence to lead, it cannot begin with the conclusions already in hand. Further, 'history' is made by people, not theories. People are flawed, rarely consistent and are acting to survive, not to fulfil a theoretical requirement. What they say they're doing is a minor part only of their history. They and their motives must be questioned as must any suspect be.

The reconstruction of history is detective work based on questions, not preconceived answers - recreating a crime scene if you like. An Anarchist historian is no historian unless she/he begins with the question - how will I know I've found what I'm looking for? Is a self-imposed label enough?

Most, if not all, authors of books claimed to be Anarchist history, have not been prepared to do the time consuming work - that's why the assumptions. As ground work, I suggest Travelling Brothers by R. Leeson, Mutual Aid by Cromwell & Green, and E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class.

Bob James
April 1999

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