A review of the book Decolonizing Anarchism
Decolonizing Anarchism: An antiauthoritarian history of India’s liberation struggle. Maia Ramnath. AK Press/Institute of Anarchist Studies. 294 pages £12.00
I tried to like this book but in the end I couldn’t.
Maia Ramnath makes it clear from the start that she is not looking towards describing what she calls big-A anarchism in South Asia. “The big A covers a specific part of the Western Left tradition dating from key ideological debates in the mid-nineteenth century and factional rivalries in the International Working men’s Association. …the big A opposed not only capitalism but also the centralized state along with all other systems of concentrated power and hierarchy.” She states that the motivation for the book was to bring an anarchist approach to anti-colonialism, and an anti-colonial approach to anarchism.
What therefore she describes as doing is describing ideas and actions inspired by what she calls little-a anarchism :“towards more dispersed and less concentrated powers; less top-down hierarchy and more self-determination through bottom-up participation” and so forth.
The book is useful for descriptions of social movements and thinkers who opposed the British Raj and sought for emancipation from it with many figures I had little or no knowledge of.
However there are some problems here. All of the thinkers described came from upper castes, and the caste system in India, intertwined with a class system, is very important in acting as a force against equality. Again, all of the thinkers described are male. She herself admits that “the narrative is dominated by male upper-caste voices”. Another problem is her alternative use of the term “Western anarchism” to describe what she otherwise calls the big-A anarchism. Now, whilst it is clear that the present day anarchist movement originated in western Europe exactly as is described, it managed to spread to Asia, not least to China, Japan and Korea where there were quite considerable movements. Anarchists in these places related to local conditions and social problems through an anarchist lens, adapting the key ideas and analysis of anarchism to their own specific circumstances, just as happened with anarchist movements in Latin America.
A specific” big A” anarchist, or rather one who was moving throughout his life towards such a stance was J.P.T. Acharya and he is given some pages in this book. But as Milan Rai notes in a review of the book for Peace News “A more accurate title would be: 'Random portraits of some Indian nationalists and radicals who were called "anarchists" by their enemies, and of other Indian nationalists and radicals who called themselves "anarchists".' And indeed Ramnath includes the life and ideas of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who whilst he read and dabbled with anarchist ideas in his youth, went on to found the far right Hindu supremacist party Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha (All-Indian Hindu Assembly). Ramnath signally fails to mention Savarkar’s later poisonous career only touching on the early libertarian influences in his life.
At the same time the Dravidian activist E.V. Ramasamy- usually known as Periyar- is excluded from this book. Now, Periyar’s politics are problematic but then so are the politics of the majority of those included in this book. But Periyar was a consistent critic of Brahmin domination, especially when his fears about its continuation in the post-Raj Indian state came true. He was also a champion of women’s rights and his last speech before his death enunciated an increasingly anti-State position. Yet no mention of him in the book. Similarly the various women’s movements that have developed in the sub-continent in response to oppression are not dealt with. Neither is the social organisation of various tribal groups which bear some consideration. Brian Morris has dealt with the south Indian forest foragers, the Malaipantaram, and their egalitarian and collectivist forms of organisation for example, see
but there is no mention of such forms of organisation in this book. Similarly a serious study of the various land occupation movements has been omitted.
Ramnath states emphatically that for her decolonialisation should not be linked to the construction of new nation states and nationalism and she repeats this several times. However in the fake interview at the end of her book where she poses questions to herself she answers the questions about how as an anarchist she is seen as supporting national liberation movements by saying “ I don’t support demands for statehood, per se…. It’s not the task of an ally to decide what the best alternative is…anarchist allies of anticolonial struggles have to recognise that the people in question must decide for themselves”. To the following question: “.Isn’t that a naïve cop-out, knowing that they plan to create a state?” she fudges the issue by replying: “well, the facts remains that they’re forced to operate within a world of states”. But then aren’t we all, and wouldn’t anarchists on the ground in countries where such a process is happening not raise their voices against such a development.
As I said at the start of this review, I really did try to engage with this book in a positive way. In the end, whilst there is much of interest here, the book is inadequate in both its analysis and its omissions.
The above review appeared in No.79 of Organise! the Anarchist Federation magazine