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Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism Hardcover – May 1, 1991

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 767 pages
  • Publisher: Harpercollins (May 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0002178559
  • ISBN-13: 978-0002178556
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 2.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,972,873 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The goal of an egalitarian, communal society has always united Marxists and leftist socialists, some of the latter (often if not always described as anarchists) refusing any truck with centralized power At various times, such ideas have found relatively wide appeal, and this era is one—expressed for instance in the antiglobalization movement's emphases on local control and direct democracy—making Marshall's comprehensive treatment a timely read. Newly revised and updated, this indispensable history of social libertarian thought now reaches into the 21st century—touching upon themes echoed in other recent titles, including Raj Patel's The Value of Nothing. Marshall casts a wide net, gathering all traces of antiauthoritarian socialist thought in works from Lao Tzu through Noam Chomsky, social ecology, and the Zapatistas. Readers will be repeatedly rewarded by Marshall's judiciousness and close readings of both the great names in anarchist history—Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy—and less expected contributors—Rousseau, Swift, and Burke. Blowing away cobwebs of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, this is a stimulating portrait of a highly varied but distinctive political ideal, tradition, and practice arising from the enduring human impulse to be free. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.


'Massive, scholarly, genuinely internationalist and highly enjoyable.' David Widgery, Observer 'An exhaustive and authoritative study which is bound to become the standard account.' John Gray, The Times 'Indispensable.' Richard Boston, Guardian 'This is the most comprehensive account of anarchist thought ever written. Marshall's knowledge is formidable and his enthusiasm engaging.' J.P. Pick, Scotsman 'Large, labyrinthine, tentative: for me these are all adjectives of praise when applied to works of history, and Demanding the Impossible meets all of them.' George Woodcock, Independent --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

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See all 13 customer reviews
P.S. This massive work might be read on a Kindle so note-taking can be eased.
John L Murphy
Once again, there are errors so gross that the only possible explanation is that Heider presumes to write about books she has never read.
Jeremy G. Snyder
All the internal and external controversies and criticisms regarding anarchism are covered as well as anarchism's replies.
Dana Garrett

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 47 people found the following review helpful By TheIrrationalMan on October 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Although the pioneering work of anarchist history was Woodcock's relatively tiny volume "Anarchism", Marshall demonstrates with this revision that the torch has passed from Woodcock to him. What is most satisfying in this edition is that, although Marshall's sympathies are unambiguously anarchist, he manages to offer a very balanced, clear, objective, helpful historical account, combined with admirably critical insights. Written in 1991, it has an added value for being reasonably recent, as previous scholarship on the subject is by now mostly dated. "Demanding the Impossible" is superior also because of its sheer bulk: 700+ information-packed pages. Not merely confining himself to looking at anarchism as an ideology, Marshall spans a period starting from Buddhism and Taoism, to ancient Greece and Christianity, up to the present and offers a rich and powerful exposition of these cultural phenomena and the ways in which they prefigure anarchistic ideas, to form a many-streamed "river of anarchy". In addition, there are explorations of modern anarchism in action in Russia and the Ukraine, Asia, Northern Europe and the United States, among many other countries across the globe. Other chapters include surveys and critiques of the major classical anarchist thinkers -- Mikhail Bakunin, Count Leo Tolstoy, Max Stirner, William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Prince Kropotkin -- as well as examinations of libertarian movements and thinkers allied to anarchism, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Nietzsche, J.S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, the existentialists Sartre and Camus, The New Left, the hippy Counterculture, Right Libertarianism, the work of Michel Foucault, and so forth. Extremely accessible account overall.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Brian Carnell on April 4, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Overall, an excellent overview of anarchism that is well worth reading. Glad I bought it and enjoyed reading it.

However, at times the author goes from chronicling the views of individual anarchists (and opponents) to coming down on one side or another of a debate. This itself would be useful, except the author seems to give short shrift to views he doesn't share.

For example, take Murray Bookchin's criticisms of deep ecology. Marshall simply treats Bookchin's criticisms as untenable and treats Bookchin's disagreements with the deep ecologists as an example of how Bookchin "laments our alienation from nature ... but he would still appear to be a victim of the process."

Perhaps if the subtitle of "Demanding the Impossible" had been "An Evaluation and Critique of Anarchism" rather than "A History of Anarchism" this wouldn't have been so jarring, but it left me wondering (as someone not overly familiar with anarchist thinking and debates) how much of his history is colored by his own personal views on what is and is not anarchism proper.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful By on January 14, 1998
Format: Hardcover
This book was absolutely excellent. Complete in almost every way, it covered every major anarchist thinker, almost every anarchist stream of thought, and anarchist history by nation. The book was very objective, unbiased and *extremely* comprehensive, and as such i feel that it is essential reading for any anarchist or student of anarchism.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A good illustration of inadequate scholarship may be found in Marshall's description of Kropotkin's essay on an anarchists morality. It is true that Kropotkin advocates the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you in the same circumstances. But what does Marshall leave out? Kropotkin actually frames the Golden Rule as justification for killing. Kropotkin's logic proceeds as follows: The best of us would wish for our own death if we ever became an oppressor. Thus the killing of a military veteran, a politician, a landlord, an employer may in some circumstances be commanded by Kropotkin's reading of "do unto others." Indeed, by way of illustration, Kropotkin envisions the killing of a returning veteran at the hands of his own son.

No competent scholar would omit such a drastic rejection of legal and moral norms. As one reviewer already noted, from an academic perspective, this book is unreliable.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Seven hundred pages of fine print, and another hundred of footnotes (in 2010's revised edition) narrate thousands of years over which people have longed for the right to make their own decisions, live as best they choose among each others' mutual assistance and communal support, and to conduct their livelihoods and relationships as they please, free of coercion, top-down dominance, or imposed government or creed. If leaders are chosen, if organizations are established, then these are entered freely and exited at will.

This sums up anarchism's principled versions. It seems from early on, philosophers, priests, bosses, legislators, politicians, and generals all have feared such a movement. Peter Marshall's immense survey shows the results, parading steadily the greatest names in the centuries who've tried to make theory into practice. The Introduction begins with great quotes from some of its exponents, and prefaces in Part I anarchism as it is in theory. While "the river of anarchy" changes with each version, the essence of freedom attracts a few each generation to plunge into what, by the heady rhetoric recurring, appear inviting waters of liberation, personally and socially. For, society for most advocates remains, even if the State withers away. The former is sought freely; the latter isn't chosen. "Society and the State" and "Freedom and Equality" articulate this in Marshall's introduction.

In Part II, the forerunners of anarchism, Taoism and Buddhism, surprisingly show how ancient this impulse is. Feared by Plato if somewhat anticipated by the pre-Socratic Greeks, its impulses survived into early and medieval Christianity, among such as dissenters, heretics, guilds, and rebels against Rome--and against Luther, tellingly.
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