1 The Anarchist Past

Submitted by Reddebrek on November 2, 2017

GEORGE WOODCOCK IS A CANADIAN SCHOLAR of 50 who was active in the English anarchist movement, during and after the last war. His field is English literature, but he has also written many articles, pamphlets and books on many aspects of anarchist thought and history. He is the author of some of the English anarchist manifestoes published by the Freedom Press, and of the standard biographies of Godwin, Proudhon and Kropotkin. He is in fact one of the best-informed Anglo-American authorities on the literary and biographical aspects of anarchism.

His new book* is a fat paperback which sets out to describe the whole anarchist movement from a sympathetic but by no means sycophantic point of view. It begins with a Prologue to pose the problem, and ends with an Epilogue to sum the problem up. In between it contains a history of anarchism from the publication of Godwin's Political Justice in 1793 to the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. This history is divided into two main parts, on the Idea of anarchism and on the anarchist Movement.

The opening problem is simple enough. "What is anarchism? And what is it not?" Anarchy, anarchist and anarchism are difficult words with double meanings familiar to us all. Is anarchy just chaos, or is it something more? If something more, then what? Is an anarchist a person who is unruly, or unruled, or both? Unfortunately, the word "anarchist" (like "Christian" or "Quaker" or "Tory" or "Whig") began as a term of abuse, thrown at the Levellers after the English Revolution and at the Enragés after the French Revolution. It was accepted by Proudhon in the 1840's and by Bakunin in the 1870's, and by many of their followers in the Labour Movement. But it has often been accepted by people outside the Labour Movement. Is

*ANARCHISM: a History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, by George Woodcock. (To be published on June 30th by Penguin Books at 7s. 6d.).

anarchism a movement, or an attitude, or what? Today it is generally used as a term of abuse again.
Woodcock stresses the unpredictable and protean nature of anarchism. He compares it to "water percolating through porous ground — here forming for a time a strong underground current, there gathering into a swirling pool, trickling through crevices, disappearing from sight, and then re-emerging where the cracks in the social structure may offer it a course to run." He lists the main streams of anarchist thought (individualism, mutualism, collectivism, and communism) and the best known tributaries (nihilism, anarcho-syndicalism, and anarcho-pacifism), and he points out that the constant disagreements between anarchists have usually concerned revolutionary methods or economic organisation.

Woodcock mentions the "family tree' of anarchism, but he has little time for it. "What has so often been represented as the prehistory of anarchism is rather a mythology created to give authority to a movement and its theories, in much the same way as a primitive clan or tribe creates its totemic myths to give authority to tradition or taboo." This is perhaps the truth, but it is surely not the whole truth. For example, Woodcock dismisses the extreme Christian sects of the Middle Ages and the Reformation in a few sentences, but George Huntston Williams' new history of The Radical Reformation shows how genuinely and significantly anarchist many of them were. Kropotkin's idea of two currents — libertarian or anarchist, and authoritarian or statist — running through human thought and behaviour is possibly an over-simplification, but it has more relevance than Woodcock suggests. But even if Woodcock is wrong to give so little credit to anarchist prehistory, he is right to spend so little time on it — it would easily fill a book by itself.

He finds the "earliest recognisably anarchist movement" in the English "Diggers" of 1649, and shows that their leader Gerrard Winstanley was indeed nothing more nor less than an anarchist. But Winstanley and the Diggers disappeared in 1650, and were forgotten until Eduard Bernstein, the German socialist, rediscovered them in 1895. Woodcock jumps forward to the French Enragés of 1793, and shows that their leader Jacques Roux was also nothing more nor less than an anarchist. But Roux and the Enragés also disappeared, though they were not forgotten. In the end, Woodcock begins with William Godwin, the English radical writer. He takes Godwin as the first of six big names who get a chapter each. (They are the same as the big names in Paul Eltzbacher's Anarchism, minus Benjamin Tucker). What is interesting about these six is that three of them had nothing to do with the "formal" or "official" anarchist movement, three of them rejected the use of violence, and three of them were Russian aristocrats. Altogether they're an odd lot.

WILLIAM GODWIN the Rationalist, the follower of Paine and teacher of Shelley, the Calvinist minister turned journalist whose Enquiry concerning the Principles of Political Justice (1793) was the first systematic exposition of anarchist theory. MAX STIRNER the Egoist, the follower of Hegel and forerunner of Nietzsche, the unsuccessful and pseudonymous girls' teacher whose Ego on His Own (1845) was a passionate argument for amoral individualism rather than moral altruism, for private rebellion rather than public revolution. PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON the Mutualist, the follower of the French Revolutionaries and founder of the French anarchist movement, the self-taught printer turned journalist whose What is Property? (1840) was the first anarchist text to acknowledge the anarchist name. MICHAEL BAKUNIN the Collectivist, the follower of Proudhon and forerunner of Kropotkin, the anarchist noble who fought on barricades, suffered prison and exile, quarrelled with Marx, and was the leader of the anarchist movement in Europe from 1867 to 1876. PETER KROPOTKIN the Communist, the follower of Bakunin and inspirer of thousands, the anarchist prince who wrote scientific books, suffered prison and exile, quarrelled with Lenin, and was the leader of the anarchist movement in Europe from 1878 to 1914. LEO TOLSTOY the Pacifist, the follower of Christ and teacher of Gandhi, the anarchist count who wrote magnificent novels, suffered conversion and excommunication, and was the founder of the anarcho-pacifist movement.

Woodcock describes the life and thought of each of the six in some detail, and does it very well. But it seems rather odd to concentrate on so few important anarchists when there have been so many. Anarchists are after all notoriously disloyal to their leaders. Nevertheless, the idea of anarchism comes over convincingly enough.

Woodcock gives another six chapters to the anarchist movement. There is a general account of "international endeavours", detailed accounts of anarchism in France, Italy, Spain and Russia, and rapid surveys of anarchism in North and South America and in northern Europe, including Britain.

The "largely unsuccessful search for an effective international organisation" is a depressing story. First the followers of Proudhon tried to work with other socialists; then the followers of Bakunin quarrelled with the followers of Marx, were driven out of the First International, and tried to form an international of their own; then the anarchists tried once more to work with other socialists; then they were driven out of the Second International as well, and again tried to form an international of their own; and then in 1923 the anarcho-syndicalists formed an international which took the name of the First International — the International Working Mens' Association, which is still based on Stockholm and is represented in Britain by the Syndicalist Workers' Federation.

But there is still no vigorous anarchist international organisation and no prospect of seeing one. The best hope is for informal rather than formal co-operation between the various "national" movements. Every country's anarchist movement seems to have seen better days. There have been great men, and great events.
Among the great men (and women) outside the big six are the Réclus brothers, Sebastien Faure, Louise Michel, Voltairine de Cleyre (who is not mentioned), Fernand Pelloutier, Emile Armand, Errico Malatesta, Camillo Berneri, Pi y Margall, Domela Nieuwenhuis, Johann Most, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Josiah Warren, Albert Parsons, Benjamin Tucker, and dozens more. "And some there be, which have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been … But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten … Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name liveth for evermore." And there are always the odd ones, such as Anselme Bellegarrigue, the French individualist who appeared briefly between 1848 and 1850 and seems to have followed La Boétie and Thoreau and to have foreshadowed Nieuwenhuis and Tolstoy; and Gustav Landauer, the German Jewish "anarcho-socialist" who began in the Social Democrats, wrote The Revolution, and was killed in the fall of the Bavarian Soviet of 1919; and the beyond-the-fringe anarchoids of the English-speaking countries — Shelley, Emerson, Thoreau, Morris, Wilde, Read, and so on.

Among the great events are the peasant movements of Andalusia, Mexico and the Ukraine, and the Robin Hood leaders — Buenaventura Durruti, Emiliano Zapata and Nestor Makhno; the martyrdom of the Chicago anarchists in 1887 and of Sacco and Vanzetti forty years later; the burst of terrorism in the 1890's, which was represented by "Ravachol" and has never been forgotten by the enemies of anarchism; the growth of anarcho-syndicalism in the 1890's, which — as Woodcock makes quite clear — was not represented by Georges Sorel: the growth of anarcho-pacifism after the first World War, which was represented by Bart de Ligt, the author of La Paix Créatrice and The Conquest of Violence; the anarchist influence on artistic and literary movements around 1900, when many Impressionist painters and Symbolist poets were involved in the movement; and the heroic efforts by thousands of unknown men and women at many times in many places.
Woodcock describes the movement of each country well enough; but in rather romantic terms. He tends to concentrate on the vivid episodes at the expense of the deeper undercurrents, so that he sees the failure of anarchist movements as symptoms of anarchist failings rather than as results of social changes. But whenever you feel that part of the story is not done well, you are surprised, as Dr. Johnson would put it, to find it done at all. This is, you must remember, the only available full-length history of anarchism in English, and it is probably better than it would have been if anyone else had written it.

The Epilogue is a depressing thing to read. What remains of anarchism? "Only the ghost of the historical movement, a ghost that inspires neither fear among governments nor hope among peoples nor even interest among newspapermen." What is the verdict? "Clearly, as a movement, anarchism has failed." Woodcock considers that anarchism failed once and for all when General Yague marched into Barcelona on 26 January, 1939, without any resistance at all. He believes that anarchists have constantly deceived themselves about the nature of their movement, which was "really a movement of rebellion rather than a movement of revolution," an anachronistic and amateurish protest against the way the Industrial Revolution and State Socialism were going rather than a genuine challenge to either of them.

"Lost causes may be the best causes," he admits, "but once lost they are never won again." But "ideas do not age," and the anarchist idea spread far beyond the anarchist movement itself. Populist, agrarian and syndicalist movements everywhere; satyagrahis in India, kibbutzniks in Israel and sindicalistas in Sicily; Vinoba Bhave, Martin Luther King and Danilo Dolci; shop-stewards, marchers and sitters in this country — all these owe more to anarchist ideas than they know. Apart from this diffusion of anarchist ideas, Woodcock favours the constant reiteration of the anarchist "counter-ideal" of perfect freedom against the authoritarian ideas of perfect order — an attitude already favoured by some anarchists under the name of "permanent protest". But in the end Woodcock comes down to an ultimate reliance on the independent minds of individual men. This is the moral of his book.

This is no more acceptable than the dismissal of anarchist prehistory. Anarchy is more than utopia, and anarchism is more than a cry of pain. Anarchists begin as individual men, but they become something more. Permanent protest is not enough. Words without deeds are wind. If anarchists want to have a future as well as a past, they must look forwards as well as backwards. Woodcock ends his story in 1939, but things have happened since them. The trial of the editors of FREEDOM for disaffection in 1945 is directly relevant to the trial of the six members of the Committee of 100 in 1962. Anarchists have in fact taken part in all sorts of resistance to the state since the war, both in this country and abroad. The campaigns for nuclear disarmament, racial integration and workers' control do not belong to the territory of classical anarchism, but there is no doubt that we belong to them. Ironically enough, the arrival of Woodcock's book in this country coincides with a revival of interest in anarchism in this country. Peace News and Solidarity are always being accused of anarchism. Twice as many people went to the Anarchists' Ball in January 1963, as went to the previous one in October 1961. The Committee of 100 is alleged to be an anarchist front, and many anarchists joined it in dominating the Aldermaston march this year. If the Spies for Peace aren't actually anarchists, they are certainly full of anarchic ideas.

Stuart Hall once said that "the anarchist case … is weak largely because it has not been put" (New Left Review 6), and Alan Lovell once said that "the formal anarchist movement in this country is totally useless and an absolute disaster for any kind of serious anarchist thinking" (NLR 8). No one could say anything like that today. But many people, both friendly and unfriendly to anarchism, are still ignorant of anarchist history. They need be ignorant no longer. Woodcock has not written the best possible history of anarchism, but he has certainly written the best available one. It will be interesting to see how many copies of it are sold in. this country, and even more interesting to see how its readers react to it. Despite his parting message, George Woodcock may have helped to turn a fashion into a movement again. For FREEDOM is more than a voice crying in the wilderness, and freedom is more than a crazy dream.