The anarchists: from outside - Nicholas Harman

Brief article by Nicholas Harman on aspects of the contemporary UK anarchist movement in 1962.

Submitted by Steven. on June 26, 2016

ANARCHISM is "permanent revolution", easier to define by its opposites (fascism, capitalism, communism, for instance) than by its positive qualities. It is no longer (if ever it was such a thing) a movement of bearded central Europeans stuffing, with tears in the eyes, indiscriminate bombs into letter-boxes in order to bring society crumbling about our ears. Nor, perhaps, is it the movement of wet idealists that it may indeed once have been; anarchists now may well argue for the abolition of present forms of social organisation, though not because they believe that men will, if left alone, run their lives successfully. The contemporary anarchist may resist rule by others simply on the grounds that others are too stupid and too self-interested to be allowed to run any lives other than their own.

Such a pessimist would, in Britain now, belong to one of the individual-anarchist groups. On another wing of anarchism, equally respectably descended from Proudhon through Bakunin, come the remaining anarcho-syndicalists, believing in control by the workers of units of production, and often campaigning (perhaps together with members of the Independent Labour Party) for a re-humanisation of the trade unions. Anarchists, of whichever wing or of neither, are extremist libertarians; they are in revolt against large-scale organisation because it has failed to provide for the sick and the old, because it has failed to produce beautiful things, because it has destroyed human relationships between human beings, because it has blighted sex or craftsmanship or kindliness. The main centre for anarchist thought in Britain is a bookshop in Fulham; the main organs of anarchist thought are the weekly FREEDOM and the monthly ANARCHY. The latter has a circulation of some 1,000 in Britain and 1,000 abroad; but the quality of the writing it contains deserves better.

For anarchism has among its supporters far more than its share of dons, writers, architects, typographers, and other applied artists (not unexpectedly, the best jazz musicians in Britain are apt to turn up to blow at the Anarchists' Ball). Schools run on anarchist principles have won themselves, together with the salacious interest of the popular Press, the respect (as experiments, if not as achievements) of many non- anarchist educationists. The social malaise expressed by so many disillusioned social-realist writers in Britain (say, Colin MacInnes, Alan Sillitoe, Adrian Mitchell) has been hailed by anarchists as a vindication of what they have been saying for years: American beatnikery, as distinct from the British bowler-hatted trad jazz variety, represents a similar disillusion with society.

This, no doubt, is the growth strain in anarchism. For anarchists have found in the Bomb the ultimate support for the proposition that the State is always wicked. To sit down in front of the American and Russian embassies and in front of the Ministry of Defence all at once would be the ideal act for an anarchist of our time. Whitehall, the Bayswater Road, and Grosvenor Square are too far apart for this to be possible; but the anarchists, rather than any more conventionally organised political movement, can claim sincerely that the young sitters from the art schools of Britain are with them in spirit — whether they know it or not.

(Political Quarterly, July-Sept. 1962).