Book Review: Unruly Equality: US Anarchism in the 20th Century by Andrew Cornell

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Unruly Equality: US Anarchism in the 20th Century. Andrew Cornell. University of California Press. 2016.

In Unruly Equality: US Anarchism in the 20th Century, the US anarchist and educator Andrew Cornell portrays anarchism as a complex and historically evolving ideology which cannot be reduced to the search for individual freedom. The writer’s primary historiographical purpose is to offer a prehistory of contemporary anarchism and to underline the importance of the period 1940-60, which is frequently seen as one of stagnation for the anarchist movement in the United States.

Although illuminating from a historiographical point of view, Cornell’s book arguably contains some overstretched claims regarding the importance of anarchism to the Left. It also tends to analyse anarchism’s complexity and heterogeneity in diachronic rather than synchronic terms; and often neglects the fact that even at a given historical moment, anarchism can mean different things to different people. Nevertheless, the writer’s association of anarchist ideas with a particular form of equality – an ‘unruly equality’ as he describes it – shows that anarchism is not so much an alternative to the Left than a corrective to its more hierarchical and bureaucratised expressions. Radicals in America and elsewhere should concern themselves more thoroughly with the historical role and the future prospects of anarchism, understood not only as a political movement but also as an intellectual tradition and a way of life.

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