on anarchism: John Kinsella interviewed by Tracy Ryan

John Kinsella is the author of more than thirty books. His many prizes and awards include the Grace Leven Poetry Prize, the John Bray Award for Poetry from the Adelaide Festival, the Age Poetry Book of the Year Award, the WA Premier’s Book Award for Poetry (three times), a Young Australian Creative Fellowship and senior Fellowships from the Literature Board of the Australia Council.

Kinsella features in Overland 193 discussing Elizabeth Campbell’s review of his recent books Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful and Contrary Rhetoric: Lectures on Landscape and Language.

In the interview below — a transcript of a talk delivered in 2004 as part of the Edith Cowan University Kinsella Landscape Lecture Series – he outlines his political views in conversation with Tracy Ryan


There are many different historical aspects of anarchism, some of which you would probably define yourself against. And I’m thinking particularly of the aspect of violence. So I’m going to start with a quote that I will run by John, that I read recently in a post-graduate French course studying Sartre’s play Les Mains sales, in which a lecturer gave the following definition for the benefit of students: ‘An anarchist is a person (this is a very dated definition) who seeks to overturn by violent means all constituted forms and institutions of government and society, with no aim of establishing any other system of order in place of that destroyed.’

So, what I’m going to ask John is, Would you comment on that definition and perhaps contrast it with your own understanding of what an anarchist or anarchism might be?


Today I don’t want to get into an historical discussion of anarchism. I don’t want to regurgitate nineteenth-century anarchists, but Malatesta made a great point about anarchism being the abolition of government and not the abolition of society, and I kind of concur with that. The replacement of governing institutions and hierarchical bodies of control with co-operative, with mutual aid organisations, people interacting to support each other. It’s a very viable and practical alternative to me, if not the only alternative. So from the start what I’m talking about is a world without government, and not a world without social institutions or interactions. Institutions is the wrong word – social interactions. I think that’s extremely important.

Obviously I would say […] that such a definition was absurd. A dictionary definition that’s very convenient, immediately isolates, and removes any debate about anarchist issues. Anarchism isn’t, and from the most aggressive anarchists I’ve never heard it put as, simply a violent overthrow of the state with nothing in its place; that’s nihilism and not anarchism. I’m a pacifist above and beyond everything else, and veganism, the kind of non-use and non-abuse of animals, is the basis of my anarchist thought. I start from there and move out. So an anarchist’s world is one in which animals are equal, if you like, as much as humans.

The very starting point of a violent overthrow is not possible from my point of view. I don’t believe in ‘revolution as such’; I believe in change by example. And I’m going to be referring, as I know Tracy will as well, to a guy named Colin Ward. This is a book of his just come out called Talking Anarchy. Colin Ward is an interesting British anarchist, who is very much involved in architectural solutions to housing for people. And his anarchism is a very pragmatic and a very practical anarchism that works within the context of the existing state. He believes that the state can be best changed by good example. So if you behave in a way that’s better than the government is behaving, then people will gradually see that as a viable alternative to living, living communally. There is a lot I disagree with in Ward, but that basic principle I really do agree with. So, just as a starting point for this, I totally reject any kind of violent overthrow of anything – it seems a contradiction in terms to me.

We are working towards a better world of egalitarianism and equality especially in terms of what people have or don’t have. Then the moment you introduce violence, you are introducing a hierarchy already. Violence is the ultimate form of hierarchy. It’s the most controlling form of hierarchy. [ …] And I think that is a very personal view, as I said, that comes out of pacifism and veganism. That’s where I start.

For the full interview, click here.

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