Oh, anarchism, what a strange creature you are. Once a major political force all over the world (anarchists outnumbered communists for quite some time in pre-revolutionary China, for example), anarchism is now one of the most misunderstood political ideologies around.
Anarchists push for a society without institutions (the state, capitalism, patriarchy, etc.) that create disparities of power between various types of people. Anarchists are not against organization, but against authority. It’s been a political identity since the French revolutionary Pierre Joseph Proudhon self-identified as an anarchist in the mid-19th century, but the basic tenets of anarchism have been espoused or followed all over the world going back more or less forever.
Anarchists have been instrumental in any number of social movements and revolutions. Perhaps most famously, the eight-hour workday was won in wake of the death of five anarchists in Chicago, who were killed by the state simply for being anarchists.
Anarchism probably reached its high water point in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, when huge chunks of Spain were run collectively, without state authority. It’s continued on ever since, and anarchists continue to be involved in activism and revolutionary struggle everywhere.
I’m not much for reading political theory, though. I get almost all my ideas through conversation and through fiction. The world needs new ideas, now more than ever. Speculative fiction is uniquely suited for the exploration of new ideas. Fortunately, there’re plenty of amazing novels that explore anarchist society, philosophy, or struggle.
Here are five.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
It would take an anarchist—or, I suppose, anyone intensely critical of power structures and dogmatic solutions to problems—to turn the utopian genre on its head. With The Dispossessed, Le Guin did just that. The anarchist moon of Anarres orbits the authoritarian planet of Urras. Anarres is run collectively, without government or capitalism. But our lunar protagonist, fed up with the stifling systems of social control that interfere with his scientific research, heads to Urras to learn about what worlds with government are like. I love this book for a lot of reasons—Le Guin is a grandmaster for a reason—but I’m particularly drawn to how well she contrasts the imperfection of the anti-authoritarian moon and the authoritarian planet. To be honest, I don’t want to live on Anarres (I’d rather not be named by a computer!), but I don’t know that there’s a more masterful exploration of anarchism that’s ever been written.
The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk
Starhawk is better known for her nonfiction than her fiction. She writes about activism, magic, and understanding systems of power. I admit, I haven’t read much of her nonfiction. But when I was a young activist fighting against the US invasion of Iraq, I read her utopian novel The Fifth Sacred Thing and I saw a vision of a society I wanted—almost desperately—to live in. In post-apocalyptic San Francisco, a group of women get together and tear up the streets to plant food. The city becomes a commune of sorts, with an open assembly that makes its decisions, leaving individuals free to contribute to society how they prefer. Most of the story focuses on the role of violence and pacifism in defense of an egalitarian society, but for me the single strongest part of this book is the astounding beauty of human possibility it suggests.
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
I just finished this book a week or two ago, and it’s sitting in the forefront of my brain. I don’t know that there’s a single book I’ve read that is more directly relevant to the issues facing the world today. In Walkaway, an international dropout culture of squatters, hackers, scientists, artists, and the like is living “the first days of a better nation.” I don’t think there’s ever been a more convincing piece of fiction to explore the intricacies of how people can be motivated to contribute to society without money or mandatory labor. Walkaway is set in the latter half of the 21st century, when technologies like 3D printing have removed the ghost of scarcity from the economy, but its lessons are directly relevant now as well. Doctorow brings anti-authoritarian values not just to the content but to the form of the book: it follows characters close to the center of some of the action, but it doesn’t pretend that one group of people will be the focal point of every aspect of a revolution.
The Watch by Dennis Danvers
It’s possible that The Watch is my favorite time travel story I’ve ever read because it’s about one of my favorite historical characters—the Russian prince-turned-revolutionary-and-scientist Peter Kropotkin—transported to a time and place I’m more familiar with: the activist scene of Richmond, Virginia, 1999. It’s also possible that it’s my favorite time travel story because it’s so wonderfully low-key and Danvers is a master of having his characters from the past dropped into the present actually act realistically. Either way, it’s my favorite time travel story.
The Steel Tsar by Michael Moorcock
Not all anarchist fiction is so serious. Some of it is just downright fun. No one does classic pulp adventure with an anti-authoritarian edge like Michael Moorcock. The Steel Tsar is the last in Moorcock’s Nomad In the Time Stream trilogy, which for the record is the earliest completely-and-utterly-steampunk work I’ve ever been able to find. I could kind of ramble on about Moorcock and all of the unacknowledged influences he’s had on this world (tabletop RPGs owe Moorcock at least as much credit as they owe Tolkien, plus he invented the chaos star, plus… steampunk…), but instead I’ll just tell you that The Steel Tsar has airships, nuclear weapons, a robotic Stalin, and the Ukranian anarchist Nestor Makhno. Which is to say, in the hands of a practiced master like Moorcock, you really can’t go wrong.
Margaret Killjoy is a transfeminine author, born and raised in Maryland, who has spent her adult life traveling with no fixed home. A 2015 graduate of Clarion West, Margaret’s short fiction has been published by Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Vice’s Terraform, and Fireside Fiction amongst others. She founded SteamPunk Magazine in 2006, and her nonfiction books have been published by anarchist publisher AK Press. Margaret’s wrote A Country of Ghosts, a utopian novel published by Combustion Books in 2014. She is also the author of the Danielle Cain series, starting with The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, from Tor.com Publishing.