2 The Anarchist Past

GEORGE MOLNAR wrote on Conflicting Strains in Anarchist Thought in ANARCHY 4. His discussion of Woodcock's Anarchism first appeared in the Bulletin of the Libertarian Society of Sydney University.

THE LITERATURE ABOUT ANARCHISM IN ENGLISH IS VERY POOR. George Woodcock's Anarchism is the first general history to have been published in sixty years. For this reason alone it is a welcome phenomenon. In it the reader will find a detailed history of anarchist thought and action, written in a simple, popular style, and conceived in great sympathy with its subject matter.

Anarchism is in two parts, with a prologue and an epilogue. Part I examines 'The Idea', and Part II 'The Movement'. In the first chapter of Part I Woodcock discusses some of the claims that have been made on behalf of a variety of precursors and antecedents of anarchism. He argues convincingly that most of these claims are unjustified. Only Winstanley and the Diggers, and the Enragés (Roux and Varlet) survive scrutiny and are admitted as genuine predecessors of modern anarchism. (Similar caution is not exercised in assessing the successors of anarchism: Woodcock sees nothing wrong with including Gandhi, via Tolstoy, in the anarchist tradition).

Separate chapters are devoted to Godwin, Stirner, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy. This is an odd line-up: you wouldn't think that all these deserve to be ranked as anarchist thinkers of equal importance. It is hard to see what, for example, Stirner and Tolstoy have in common with each other or with Bakunin, and still harder to see what Godwin, Stirner or Tolstoy have to do with the anarchist movements discussed in Part II. This heterogeneous selection is influenced, it seems, by Woodcock's view that "anarchism is both various and mutable." Beneath the variety, however, the historian discerns uniformity in the common assumptions of anarchist theories. These assumptions, mainly belief in the natural sociability of man, opposition to the idea of progress, individualism, and a "deeply moral-istic element", unite the plurality of anarchists into a distinct and recognisable whole.

Woodcock's discussion of the anarchist idea is largely uncritical. There is, for instance, a fundamental ambiguity in the notion of 'sociability'. The theory that society is natural but the political State is artificial may assert one of two things. (1) That social processes cannot be created or maintained by coercion alone; that in addition to any coercion, co-operation is a feature of any social relation. (2) That co-operation can exist to the exclusion of coercion; that the conflicts and disharmonies which give rise to authoritarianism are less real, less necessary than the real, spontaneous harmony of ungoverned society.

Proposition (1) is undoubtedly true, but by no means warrants the various optimistic conclusions which anarchists have drawn from the theory of sociability. On the face of it, it looks as though both co-operation (voluntary action) and coercion are universal categories of social life. Both are features of any social situation. If that is so, we have no reason for hoping that man's innate sociability will help anarchists to establish the kind of free society which is perfectly harmonious, in which authority is replaced by co-ordination, and repression by consultation. Only if proposition (2) were true could this be expected. Woodcock does not seem to have noticed that anarchists regularly fail to prove (2). The evidence they give for the existence of 'sociability' never goes beyond establishing (1), although the conclusions they draw from the notion depend on (2). Godwin's theory of human perfectibility and his belief in the power of reason, Proudhon's tactic of the "proliferation of mutualist societies", Kropotkin's "adapted social Darwinism", Tolstoy's non-violence and simple living, Stirner's union of egoists, are all, in relation to 'sociability', in the realm of wishful thinking. The possibility of a new form of society and a totally harmonious way of life as envisaged in these various methods simply does not follow from any of the evidence that is adduced to prove man's natural sociability. There is an unfilled gap between the social theories of these anarchists and their policies: if we examine what is tenable in their description of the workings of human society and set this beside their plans and visions for a desirable future condition of that society, we find that the plans are unworkable. In this sense all these anarchists are utopian, and this despite that fact which Woodcock stresses, that anarchists are reluctant to draft Utopias.

Of the six theorists discussed in Part I of Anarchism only one escapes this criticism. Bakunin is in some ways the least coherent and least theoretically minded of these anarchists. Yet he is alone among Woodcock's sextumvirate to have shown an awareness of this gap and to have proposed steps for bridging it. It is true that Bakunin believed in the elemental, spontaneous upheaval of the people, and this side of his thinking receives adequate stress from Woodcock. But Bakunin also saw that mighty popular outbursts do not necessarily lead to anarchy, he saw the need for organization, for 'revolutionary science', for leadership. This part of his thinking is dismissed by Woodcock as merely a mania for conspiracy, but surely it was more than this. Bakunin made an independent and original contribution to anarchism by facing up to the need for leadership, and the value of this contribution is not diminished by the fact that Bakunin himself was reluctant to publicize it, nor by the fact that it was not an anarchist but Lenin who eventually put the Bakuninist scheme into practice. The value of Bakunin's organizational insights lies in this: they show that no revolution, no fundamental change in the structure of society, can be accomplished without in the process either perpetuating old forms of authoritarianism or bringing into being new forms. Bakunin is alone among anarchists in not being a utopian but this he achieves only at the cost of demonstrating the impossibility of bringing about a global state of freedom.

The anarchist paradox is one of means and ends. The ends are always glorious on paper, but they remain unattainable either because the means are vacuous, or, as in the case of Bakunin, where the means are realistic they corrupt and subvert the ends, and lead to an outcome other than anarchy. This is confirmed by Part II of Anarchism. All historical libertarian movements have turned out to be impotent to affect any of the changes they strove for. To the extent to which they retained their anarchist purity they remained small, isolated and far too feeble to influence the course of history. On the other hand in places where they achieved some sort of size and power — in Spain, France, or the Ukraine — the organizations with which they were associated were "libertarian in name only". As far as the insurgent anarchists of Catalonia or Southern Russia are concerned, Woodcock puts this failure down to the exigencies of war. War is essentially unlibertarian. But what of anarcho-syndicalism? Woodcock momentarily recognises that syndicalism, with its aim of an apocalyptic general strike, is also the "continuation of politics by other means". But he immediately brushes this aside as a "question of definition" (p. 32) and returns to insist on "the real difference between anarchist direct actionism and the methods of other left-wing movements." The difference is supposed to be that anarchist tactics

"are based on direct individual decisions. The individual takes part voluntarily in the general strike; of his own free will he becomes a member of a community, or refuses military service, or takes part in an insurrection. No coercion or delegation of responsibility occurs; the individual comes and goes, acts or declines to act, as he sees fit. It is true that the anarchist image of the revolution does indeed take most frequently the form of a spontaneous rising of the people; but the people are not seen as a mass in the Marxist sense — they are seen as a collection of sovereign individuals, each of whom must make his own decisions to act." (pp. 32-3).
When, however, we turn to the actual description of the French C.G.T.we find reproduced a slight paraphrase of the words in which Michels exposed the latent elitism of the syndicates:

"Nor did the C.G.T. as a whole represent a majority among the workers of France; the anarcho-syndicalist theoreticians rather welcomed this fact, since they felt that a relatively small organization of dedicated militants could activate the indifferent masses in a critical situation, and in the meantime would not lose their potency by immersion in a mass of inactive card-carriers. The Bakunist conception of a revolutionary elite played a considerable part in anarcho-syndicalist theory." (p. 322).

Add to this the fact that every time the historian records an anarchist "success" it is in terms of gaining control of some organization or institution, and the picture emerges of anarchists losing both ways. When they retain their principles they get nowhere or are quickly beaten; when they achieve anything it is at the cost of the purity of their beliefs.

The persistent miscarriage of anarchist plans has deep-rooted causes which Woodcock does little to illuminate. Despite his obvious sympathy with anarchists he has not escaped the conventional historian's attachment to the values of success. History, as it is all too often written, is the story of the victorious, the successful, those that come out on top. The history of anarchism cannot of course be that. But it can be, and in this case unfortunately is, written with an eye to appraising ideas and movements in terms of success. Thus Woodcock in his epilogue is obliged to write off historical anarchism as a lost cause, and to proclaim as viable only the libertarian ideal whose future lies in "the impact of its truth on receptive minds". What can we make of this return to rational propaganda and individualism? If this is all there is to anarchism we have little reason to think that a good cause has been lost.

Anarchism has certain features in common with socialism, populism, etc. It is distinguished from them by being the only radical movement whose principal avowed concern was with freedom. The error of traditional anarchism is that its exponents imagined that they could eliminate power and authority once and for all, and could establish the exclusive reign of liberty on earth. The positive achievement of anarchists was that they struggled and protested against authorities of all kinds as they encountered them. But to struggle against authority at all is to struggle in defeat. That is why it is inappropriate to regard anarchists as mere historical failures. Of course they failed in realising their illusory schemes — what else could be expected? Yet in the course of working towards these imaginary ends they did succeed, concretely and tangibly, in criticising, harassing and opposing the power-holders of Right, Left and Centre. Their very activity — protest in the name of freedom — is bound never to be successful in the conventional sense. "Why give freedom to sheep? They only bleat," said Stirner (Woodcock doesn't quote this). Freedom is not something to which the world can be converted: it is of its nature a minority interest. That anarchists, with whatever illusions, persisted in taking this unpopular stand is a mark of steadfastness, a sign that there is something recurrent and permanent about their cause. Seen in this light the famous words of Vanzetti (quoted by Woodcock) acquire a new meaning.

" 'If it had not been for this, I might have live out my life, talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we do such a work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man, as we do now by an accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler — all! The last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph!' "
The triumph of anarchism is its agony, it success is failure. Holy fools rush around with a jumble of philanthropic ideas in their heads and a deeply moralistic element in their souls. They sacrifice their talk, their sweat, their ingenuity and often their blood for what to all the world appears nothing. They succeed in only one thing: protest of the kind that is always defeated. That is their career, that is the substance of anarchism.


A CONFLICT BETWEEN SOCIOLOGY ON ONE HAND and the traditional mechanisms of government on the other was always foreseen by the earliest believers in the theory of the free society, who tend, like Godwin or Kropotkin, to talk in terms of nineteenth-century revolutionary action. The likelihood of such a conflict remains, unless social sciences are themselves captured by the mechanisms of power and rendered subservient to them. It is plain that such a revolution cannot usefully be envisaged in the military terms which appealed to some, at least, of the earlier revolutionaries; it is more likely to follow upon the collapse or the threatened destruction of the existing patterns under the weight of their own contradiction.
—ALEX COMFORT: Sex in Society

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Nov 2 2017 01:07


Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas

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