Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism: By Peter Marshall, 818 pgs. By Jimmy

Jul 27, 2012

I’ll start right off the bat here with this: I am by no stretch of the imagination a scholar when it comes to anarchist thought. Granted, I’m no stranger to the subject and I consider myself sympathetic to (or at least willing to ponder) its core tenets, but the last time I read Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Proudhon with any level of deep analysis was more than twenty-five years ago and haven’t much kept abreast of all the latest goings-on since, black-clad protest-attending rapscallions notwithstanding. Not that I’m averse to reading tomes about various political theories, it’s just that to get a well-rounded overview of the subject requires selecting, reading, and deciphering lots of books by lots of different dead folks and, like I said at the outset, I’m no scholar on the subject.

What makes a book like Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism to the average punter interested in the subject is that it tries its damnedest to be a one-stop place to get a fairly holistic overview of not only “anarchism” but also the labyrinth of sub-pigeonholes that have sprung up over the decades—like “punk” and its voluminous substrata of genres—from anarcho-capitalism to anarcho-primitivism and various angles in between. Sandwiched between its covers are discussions of a number of different viewpoints within anarchist thought, with whole sections covering basic anarchist theory, historical precursors to anarchism, overviews of “classic anarchist thinkers (Godwin, Stirner, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Reclus, Malatesta, Tolstoy, Goldman. and, interestingly, Gandhi, among others), anarchist uprisings in various parts of the world, modern takes on anarchism, and “The Legacy of Anarchism,” respectively.

Marshall is largely successful in providing equal time to anarchism’s different strains and approaches. He makes a valiant attempt to keep all the cerebral wankery that comes with most philosophical discussions at bay and recounts the basic arguments, counter-arguments and counter-counter-arguments as concisely and comprehensibly as possible, with the most interesting bits (for me, anyway) being the “anarchist” leanings of folks that predate proper anarchist theory—Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, the Greeks, the Middle Ages and so on. Some on both sides of religious viewpoints may argue the validity of assertions that strains of anarchist thought run through religious systems, but it nonetheless makes for interesting alternate interpretations of the teachings of Lao Tzu or St. Augustine. Marshall is also not afraid to include discussions on some of the darker thought processes of some of its adherents, like the anti-Semitism of Bakunin and a few of his peers.

Keep in mind, however, this isn’t some kind of light, beach-friendly summer reading. Weighing in at a hefty eight hundred-plus pages, it is cursed with a font so tiny that it will likely trigger horrifying memories for those once foolhardy enough to have attempted reading Flipside’s record review section way back when. Additionally, despite all attempts at making the concepts concise and easily digestible as possible, this is some heady stuff requiring both the reader’s ability to think, to reason, and to question on their own, skills that are too often in short supply these days. The best approach is probably to take it in bits and fits instead of devouring it all in one sitting to prevent full brain overload.



I imagine that, like your average “best of” record, those with much more knowledge of the subject will find much here to be rehash, and will even likely find some things they deem to be wrong, utter bullshit, or whatever, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. More power to ’em, I ain’t that guy. What knowledge I’ve managed to retain on the subject after a quarter century rang accurate with what’s here, and what may be inaccurate, those interested in delving deeper into the subject will likely suss out on their own.



What can’t be denied is that Marshall has done a lot of heavy lifting here to provide a scholarly, yet accessible look into a subject long misunderstood, maligned, and misrepresented by those who purport to serve the best interests of general public. What’s here may not change your mind about anarchism, but it does provide enough information to make a relatively informed decision whether or not it floats your boat, and ain’t that the point of a democracy? –Jimmy Alvarado (PM Press, PO Box 23912, Oakland, CA 94623)