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History book recommendations?

+5 votes
I'm not well versed in history, and so I'm looking for recommendations for books looking at history in a way that might be interesting to anarchists.I'm not looking for anything in particular, the question is intentionally broad. What history books have you found interesting? I'm not looking specifically for books about anarchist history.
asked Aug 1, 2015 by anonymous
edited Aug 1, 2015

6 Answers

+2 votes
Best answer

I am a nerd about history - not so much in a dates and places sort of way, but a how all these things relate to and are impacted by each other way. A lot of that is best found in reading biographies and memoirs.
Regarding more strictly historical books I would echo the Avrich recommendation, as well as Zinn (take Zinn with a grain of salt - he tended to be a bit overly optimistic and I've heard arguments that he somewhat misrepresents some things, but overall it is a good read). I took a US History class once focused in particular on labor, the working class, and protest movements that paired People's History with a textbook called Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's History: 1877 to Present which is published by the American Social History Project. It was a pretty good class, if a little more red than I prefer, though that teacher kinda liked to fashion himself an anarchist of sorts, so it coulda been that too. Another (sort of) history book I enjoyed is Christian Parenti's The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slave Passes to the War on Terror.

There are lots of books on the Spanish Revolution, I have read a couple, but I would love for someone more versed in that specific historic moment to chime in about what the best ones are. Same with stuff on the Makhnovschina. I have a book I haven't yet read (and thus can't recommend called Cuban anarchism: The History of a Movement by Frank Fernandez.

In talking about history and anarchists, I would be remiss to not bring up Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! by Fredy Perlman as a corrective to all histories too strictly factual.

answered Aug 4, 2015 by ingrate (19,620 points)
selected Aug 12, 2015 by dot

Thanks for the answer. I'm reading Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! at the moment. Could you suggest some biographies and/or memoirs? However I'm not so interested in reading American centric things right now. 

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker wrote an amazing book called The Many Headed Hydra about the rise of capitalism in the Atlantic world of the 17th and 18th centuries. Slave Rebellions, Pirate Utopias, and general discontent of the thousands of recently proletarianized are just some of the stories told in this book. Rediker also wrote a book focusing solely on pirates called Villains Of All Nations, which is quite good, though I do think he over romanticizes the "pirate way of life." (They did own slaves you know..)

Excellent, I'll try to track those down, The Many Headed Hydra sounds quite interesting. 

Unfortunately most of the memoirs I've read are pretty North American-centric, but Memoirs of a Revolutionist by Kropotkin is really good. Kropotkin and I would disagree about anarchy, but reading his memoir made me feel an affinity for him I had lost in the many years since I'd first read his work. Also, Sabate: Urban Guerilla in Spain (1945 - 1960) by Antonio Tellez is really good. Sabate is currently available from Little Black Cart, who also have a number of other memoirs that they have reprinted, some of which I've really liked, some of which I haven't as much.

There are bunches of others, but I am drawing blanks right now, so I reserve the right to revisit this later....

almost all of the historical memoirs that LBC carries are from elephant editions and are probably available online.

the one significant one that is not is Freedom: My Dream, by arrigoni, which is really fun for a lot of reasons, including but not limited to the history (he tells personal stories about mussolini, for example)...

+3 votes

Anything by Paul Avrich if you're interested in the history of American anarchism. I recommend Sacco and Vanzetti: the Anarchist Background. While he provides a general biography for both men and thoroughly examines their famous case, the most interesting thing about this book is Avrich's research on the Italian anarchist movement. In particular luigi galleani and his followers. Avrich does not hide the fact that, although there is no proof that Sacco or Vanzetti were guilty, they nonetheless were involved in an insurrectionist tendency within the anarchist movement in the early 20th century. 

Avrich's Anarchist Voices is a great documentary history of American anarchism. He interviewed quite a few people who I had never heard of. 

If you want a "pop" history book, The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents, by Alex Butterworth is a fun read. It's not a very rigorous history and it can be a little hard to follow at times, because he blasts through events quite quickly, but I found it to be good summer read and provided a good overview of 19th century Anarchism in Europe. 

answered Aug 1, 2015 by Happinessisbunk (220 points)
+3 votes
while neither of these is specifically anarchist in perspective, they both provide some historical context that diverges dramatically from the history i learned as a kid, and demonstrate the hypocrisy and authoritarian nature of the u.s. government.

lies my teacher told me (james loewen)

a people's history of the united states (howard zinn)
answered Aug 2, 2015 by funkyanarchy (10,190 points)
America Revised by France Fitzgerald is also a pretty interesting read that's similar to the James Lowen book.
–3 votes

I read Noam Chomsky's book On Anarchism.  It's a history about the Spanish anarchist revolution.  It's not that long and an easy read.  The thing I liked about it most was that Chomsky describes how capitalists and communists worked to put it down.  The powers that be are afraid of democratic anarchism.  Chomsky makes a good point that the anarchist would have continued to succeed but the powers that be were afraid of it and fought to destroy it.  Anyway, new to the site and thought I would throw this good read out there since you asked.

answered Aug 10, 2015 by stillaslave (90 points)

Just a heads-up: most of us regulars here are not fans of Chomsky. The book "Chomsky on Anarchism" is partly reviewed here:

The salient excerpt:

Chomsky on Anarchism is a book of 241 pages, from which we can subtract six pages of gushing, adulatory Prefaces and Introductions, so it is down to 235 pages. 91 of these pages consist of “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” (11-100), which was, in 1969, his debut political essay. It wasn’t necessary to reprint this text, even if it was worth reprinting, because Black & Red in Detroit had already done so.[7] The first part of this text is a bitter, well-documented denunciation of the academic and intellectual supporters of the Vietnam War. (29-40) This is the template for many books which Chomsky went on to write. It has nothing to do with anarchism... 

The second part of this text is a critical review of a book about the Spanish Civil War by historian Gabriel Jackson.[8] Chomsky convincingly shows, contrary to Jackson, that there was a Spanish Revolution, not merely a Spanish Civil War. Spanish workers and peasants – many of them anarchists -- initially defeated, in some parts of Spain, the fascist generals, and also collectivized much of industry and agriculture, which they placed under self-management. It is possible – in my opinion, and also in Chomsky’s opinion, probable – that if the Soviet-supported Republican government hadn’t suppressed the social revolution, it might not have lost the war.

However, correcting the history of the anarchist role in the Spanish Civil War is not the same thing as writing about anarchism, much less expounding one’s own “vision” of anarchism. Many historians who are not anarchists have written about, and documented, the anarchist role in the Spanish revolution.[9] They were doing so before Chomsky’s brief, one-time intervention, and they have done so afterwards. 

Wow, that was a stinging critique. I followed the link you posted above. I had no idea, but I do now! Thank you lawrence.  Chomsky's book, On Anarchism, is the only book of his I've read; I was intrigued when I heard he was an anarchist.  At least he got me interested in the movement and pointed out what seems to be a short success in history.  

From the link, "Chomsky must be absolutely ignorant of the reality that human beings lived in anarchist societies for about two million years before the first state arose about 6,000 years ago. . ." (Black).  That is an interesting point as well.  I never thought about it that way.  Anarchism is not something new but was very common before the formation of the state .  The point makes me think that an anarchist society, in that sense, is the more natural state for humanity.  It seems to me that it could be easily argued that the more tribal communities (indigenous) of the past were much healthier in many ways than the mass poverty created by the state and economic system we have now.

Anyway, thanks, 

0 votes

Currently reading Wobblies and Zapatistas, a conversation between Andrej Grubacic and Staughton Lynd. The book is a bit confusing at times because of its interview form and its many digressions, but gives and overall view of an activists' life and they both reach really interesting points concerning the future of Marxism and anarchism. Pretty accessible and easy to read too, not much academic jargon.

answered Aug 14, 2015 by cyborg (290 points)
–2 votes
"The History of the Rise and Decline of the Roman Empire" by Edward Gibbon is good but daunting. It's split into 12 volumes though. You have to read between the lines but it is a fascinating study of leads to the inevitable collapse of state based societies.

It shows how the social construct of government, the elitists who create plus depend on it and the control mechanisms they employ eventually rot themselves to decay and eventually results in downfall. Rome alone is a terrific example of this.

The book also says religion, Christianity specifically, led to the death of Rome's government to inevitably dying too as religions always do as well as dulling people's ability to think and act properly.

It's in the public domain so it's splattered all over the internet so you'll have no trouble at all getting a copy.

I'll redirect you to a good online edition made possible by Project Gutenberg.


EDIT: Oh, and if you want any suggestions that are shorter reads if you don't feel up for running the reading gauntlet on something that big.

ANOTHER EDIT: Hopefully my answer should be more acceptable. If not, before anyone does, let me know instead of just voting it down again without explaining.
answered Aug 16, 2015 by MrEniena (690 points)
edited Aug 17, 2015 by MrEniena
Okay, am I the only one who read the "about us" section? What exactly have I said wrong to warrant the down voting on this suggestion?

If you're going to downvote, please emote. Correct me if I'm wrong about something as I'm still new to anarchism and need to learn.
i didn't downvote, but if i had it would've been because i am made uncomfortable by talking about inevitability of social constructs.

and separating the "construction" or formation of government from the elite seems odd; surely they're coterminous?

but also, don't take downvotes personally. capitalists do sometimes come on here and screw with the voting.

also people just might not like your answer and not be able to or want to explain.
Good points. I should stop being so thin skinned.

Also good point on the elite. I should make that more clear as it totally slipped my mind. I'll do one final edit.

The books I also know say religion too played a big role in the downfall of Rome's government which too also leads to governments collapsing and being exploited by elitists to maintain their power for as long as possible.