Demanding the Impossible: A Review

Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism\

Ground Control  Magazine
I Wanna Be Literated #144
February 22nd, 2017

Demanding the Impossible has been on my to-read list ever since I saw its cover with a Noam Chomsky quote on the book racks at Powell’s. However, this is one hefty book and I didn’t want to tackle it until I knew I was mentally prepared. I’m glad I braced myself because Demanding the Impossible is thorough to say the least.

I’ve read a good amount of anarchist literature and have been interested in its history and theories over the years. I still can’t quite decide whether I should have read this book at the beginning of this journey because Demanding the Impossible does an impeccable job of summarizing the history of anarchism, its most important contributors, their theories and what advances the movement has made over the years. It might have improved my understanding later on if I had used this book as a crash course.

Starting with the Taoist movement many centuries ago, Peter Marshall elegantly takes us through the different political movements that have adopted anarchist ideas. Demanding the Impossible discusses the forerunners of anarchism that were prevalent in old Asian, Greek, Christian and European societies, then touches on the old libertarian thinkers who had an anarchist slant in their beliefs, followed by the more prominent thinkers. Throughout, Marshall displays an expertise for their philosophy and gets at the core of what their ideas were. At the end, Marshall focuses on the trends worldwide and movements that have claimed anarchist principles, like the Mexican revolution, the Spanish civil war, the 1968 protest in France, and more recent events. Regretfully, this book was not updated in time to include the Occupy movement.

Having read most of these authors before, I can tell Marshall is doing a lot of the heavy work for us in trying to understand what some of them were trying to get at. A lot this source material is dry, convoluted, and very difficult to read and having someone like Marshall extract its meaning for a general audience is vital. What’s also important is how Marshall shows us the complete picture of the philosophers, warts and all. So for example, he makes it a point to talk about Proudhon’s patriarchy and anti-Semitism, Bakunin’s contradictions in stressing the importance of a secret police, Kropotkin’s support of the war and imperialist powers, Goldman’s jealousy in open relationships, and Bookchin’s reversion to Marxism towards the end of his life.

This may sound like nitpicking, but it’s important to remember that these representatives of freedom had flaws themselves. I cannot stress it enough: this book is thorough and well put together.

Many more Anarchist anthologies will be written and undoubtedly the day will come when this book will be obsolete, but that won’t happen for a very long time. Demanding the Impossible is simply exhaustive and Peter Marshall has done an incredible job. Every historian will have to reckon with it.

Back to Peter Marshall’s Author Page