The Impossible Community: realising communitarian anarchism

by John P Clark, reviewed by Chris Tomlinson

February 17, 2014
2 min read

impossiblecommunityIn this often insightful and illuminating book John P Clark sets out his vision for a radically democratic ‘communitarian anarchism’ (or ‘anarcho-communism’ as he also terms it at one point). This ideal is explored in critical engagement with many real-world social experiments and practices with which the author has had direct involvement. Clark’s deep commitment to the anarchist ethics that he advocates, and his work in putting them into effect, lend weight to the distinction between ethics as working ideals and the kind of ‘abstract moralism’ that he criticises in ‘programmatic’ thinkers like Murray Bookchin.

Clark is at pains to stress the dialectical nature of his thinking, claiming that the ‘goal of the present work is to be fully and consistently dialectical’. This commits him to a position where ‘small communities of solidarity and liberation’, such as the affinity group, are the immanent negation of capitalism, existing outside of it while still within its ‘totalitarian’ structure. This leads to, among other things, Clark advocating Gandhian Sarvodaya communities, which ask for celibacy and call for the abolition of industrialism and the reconfiguration of society along the lines of subsistence farming. It is difficult to see the applicability and immediate relevance of some of the strategies and aims of the movements that Clark surveys to the radical democratisation and equalisation of today’s heavily industrialised societies.

This book is valuable for several important reasons and limited in others. While Clark adeptly deploys Marx, Hegel, Aristotle, Enlightenment philosophers, Žižek and a host of other modern and ancient thinkers, making this work erudite and rich, he occasionally gets carried away, at one quoting Brecht in German without bothering with a translation. In the context of the author’s professed commitment to creating, on a personal level, the conditions for remaking society, you have to wonder how the average reader is expected to engage with much of this work. It certainly does not seem to have been produced with them in mind.

Yet by the author’s own admission, the necessarily unfinished nature of the work, like the ‘impossible’ project of totally and permanently perfecting a utopian society, ‘opens up new possibilities for others to carry out the task more adequately’.