A Personal Introduction

Submitted by Steven. on October 7, 2009

Some years ago I was talking to a friend of mine in Leeds who was doing a thesis on British labour history. He asked me if I had ever heard of a group of people who had been arrested for a bomb conspiracy in 1892, a group known as the Walsall Anarchists. What ? British Anarchists ? I had never heard anything like it. I had cut my eye teeth as an Anarchist arguing with Trotskyistsand Communists over Spain and Russia. I had wondered why left-wing politics always had to do with foreign parts, though I had found much disputarional mileage in the events in Barcelona in 1936 ( 'the capacity of the proletariat for spontaneous self-activity' ) and Kronstadt in 1921 ( 'the Bolsheviks were not fighting the counter-revolution, they were the counter-revolution' ). But passionate denunciations of Leon 'Shoot them like partridges' Trotsky over many pints of beer left much to be desired. There was too much dreaming in our transference of the heady days of past revolutions in other places to the sooty backstreets and Arndale centres of Leeds. It was our own place and time we should have been talking about. Had Leeds no history of its own which made sense of the present ? Its people were descendants of Luddites and Chartists, millburners and loom-wreckers. There had been no revolutions, we were sure of that; but perhaps there had been revolutionaries whose successes and failures it would pay us better to learn from. So when my friend asked me if I had heard of Anarchists in prosaic Walsall my mind did a somersault which it had been prepared for, more or less. My intention to write a book on the British Anarchists was formed that afternoon in Leeds during a cigarette break outside the University library.

A lot of things got in the way, earning a living for one thing, not to mention various agitations. Eventually the book was written. As so many authors have remarked, if I had known what was involved before I started the book might not have been written. I suppose, however, that this makes about as much sense as someone saying that if they had known what a difficult business life was they would not have bothered to be born. Anyway, when the book reached the publishers it was greeted with cautious optimism but I was told that I had described the British Anarchist movement without explaining the general philosophy on which it was based. I thought this was a bit rough; there seemed enough passing references and inferences to make it clear. On reflection, however, I began to feel that they might have a point - Anarchism has been represented too often as the philosophical creed of a bunch of bomb-carrying nutters in big black hats and cloaks, providing a general justification for causing chaos for the sake of it. But if I was to try and correct this impression how was I to do it without being balls-achingly boring ? For it is an unfortunate fact that political theory, no matter how worthy or perceptive, is curiously disembodied; it gives no clues to the passions, the heroisms or the squalid conflicts that it inspired.

I could begin by saying something like 'Anarchism is a political philosophy which states that it is both possible and desirable to live in a society based on cooperation, not coercion, organized without hierarchy with no element of the principle of authority.' I could add that as a human aspiration in various guises it is as old as authority itself, though as a politically self-conscious, self-defined movement it emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century. It seems to have been one response to the treatment of socialists at the hands of bourgeois revolutionaries in the 1830-48 period of revolutions. More specifically it marks a rejection of the political structure which the bourgeoisie sought to establish - parliamentary democracy. From the earliest times when the odd socialist might take executive office, through to the development of mass Social Democratic parties, the Anarchists developed their criticisms and their alternatives in parallel : from the cooperatives and staunch artisan individualism advocated by Proudhon, through the decentralist revolutionary activism of Bakunin and the simultaneously intense idealism and finely detailed practicality of Kropotkin to the entwining of all these strands with insurgent trades unionism in Anarcho-Syndicalism. And it hardly needs to be added that an expansion of this theme would fill - and has filled - many volumes. There is much in the writings of the Anarchist sages worth reading; yet they wrote for times and to concerns which only loosely approximate to our own. Should anyone wish to read theoretical works of more contemporary relevance, the works of Murray Bookchin , Paul Cardan and the Situationists are recommended.

But once all this is said, perhaps the most important part remains unsaid. Political convictions involve an analysis of a situation with suggestions for change; yet they differ qualitatively from the emotionally neutral attitudes of, say, car mechanics. Political attitudes are to do with the totality of social being - which can only be seen as a series of mere technical problems at the risk of madness. Political convictions involve much more than the logical faculties; they involve a strong emotional commitment. Perhaps one reason why I have written a book about the Anarchist movement is that in the lives of the people who made it I find a sense of community of emotional commitment that I cannot find in a history of theoretical development. We understand theoretical convictions more easily, it seems to me, when they are presented as a particular personal commitment. Thus, rather than expand the themes of the previous paragraph, it might be better to explain Anarchism 'from the inside', as it were, by describing how I became an Anarchist. I have no way of knowing how typical I am, though, and I apologize to anyone in the movement who thinks my own case is wildly untypical.

Some time ago I was thrown out of Leeds University for failing an examination. I wanted to change subjects anyway. The result was that I spent two years working in assorted jobs and going to night school to get more relevant 'A'-Levels. One of these jobs had been as an unqualified teacher. The school had been quite a tough one, I was too young and inexperienced and the whole business turned out to be something of a disaster. The most depressing thing was the incredible ease with which I became a parody of the authoritarian teacher. I bellowed at the kids, I hit them, I demanded an obedience I found ridiculous, I preached values that were not my own. I had started the job an unthinking socialist with a rebellious streak and ended up sounding and acting like a prison warder - if not a particularly effective one. So when I was readmitted to the University and was spending the summer beforehand working at the far more congenial job of cleaning railway carriages I had a lot of thinking to do.

In the house where I had a room there were two Anarchists. Quiet and friendly themselves, though perhaps a little too un-uproarious for my taste, their conversation and their bookshelves were a revelation. For the first time I began to see what systems of order-givers and order-takers did to people, how authoritarian roles were enforced from the outside and then more readily accepted through chronic personal insecurity. I also found examples of men and women who had not only opposed arbitrary authority but had formulated - and lived - alternatives to it. Almost immediately I began to call myself an Anarchist, though it is probably true to say that it takes a lifetime to be one. It was certainly the case that some time passed before the unique combination of personal morality, political analysis, strategy and tactics fully came home to me. In the years of agitation that followed I began to put practical flesh on the simple bones of the idea that mankind can live without authority. And though the problems in the way of progress towards that happy society have proved more deep-rooted than my first enthusiasm might have allowed, I have found no reason to suppose that it is neither possible nor desirable. For every Anarchist, in the present book or out of it, there has been some process similar to this. Whether through personal experience or personal observation of oppression or exploitation, someone jumps from considerations of despair or piecemeal defence to the conception that the whole world can be made again. And not with 'a new boss same as the old boss' but a world without elites, hierarchy or privilege. Without some understanding of this one cannot understand what makes Anarchists tick and their ways will be as strange to the unpolitical reader as the ways of Martians.

In the present book I have tried to describe the British Anarchist movement from its origins in 1880 or thereabouts to its more or less total eclipse by about 1930. ( Though it is worth pointing out that the movement did pick up again rapidly in the later 1930s, mainly through the influence of the Anarchist contribution to the Spanish Civil War and Revolution of 1936-9. This later period is still a matter of living reminiscence rather than history. ) That the British Anarchist movement was a small one compared to the mass movements of Spain or France cannot be denied. Yet though never a mass movement, when it was in tune with its times it had periods of quite extraordinary growth. These periods of growth raise some interesting queries as to how histories of the 'common people' or the 'working class' have been related. For the conventional wisdom of 'people's history' over the greater part of our period has seen the significant developments in the emergence of institutions, most particularly the trades unions and the Labour Party. ( A smaller group have rather concentrated on a smaller institution, the Communist Party. ) There is no point in Anarchist historians trying to fabricate Anarchist institutions in opposition to these - there is no evidence that any existed. Anarchism in Britain had as its high spots the two periods of great working-class unrest that occurred in our period - 1889-94 and 1910-19. Outside these periods, institutions formed and transformed in them represent a tide-mark round the bath of history after the waters of revolt have subsided. The Anarchists, on the other hand, were of the moment, a part of that revolt, sustained by it, feeding ideas into it, growing and subsiding with it. The forms of the movement were shifting and decentralized, making it rather difficult to pin down numbers, events and the particular activists involved and forcing the historian to rely on a myriad snippets of information. Nevertheless it is possible to say that the Anarchist movement emerges in its moments of strength as of at least equal importance to that of the Marxist groupings. More importantly, it calls into question the validity of a history which considers only the institutional superstructure of working-class activity with little or no attention given to the ebb and flow of that activity itself. Anarchism, so often called 'utopian' or 'unrealistic', would seem to emerge as a practical creed when the masses move and suddenly feel their power.

It is as a movement in relation to the ebb and flow of popular revolt that this book concerns itself with the British Anarchists. Only in relation to this does it consider Anarchist philosophy and its philosophers. It concerns itself with the Anarchist ideas taken up by people trying to seize some control over their own lives. Recent years have seen the re-issue of many of the Anarchist 'classics' of our period, together with assorted attempts to assess Anarchist ideas of a rather patchy quality. I have no wish to enter this field. This book is concerned with the active spreading of Anarchist propaganda and the nature of day-to-day Anarchist activity. Thus there is little about Kropotkin after 1890, though his major theoretical output was after this date. There is barely a mention of literati of the Oscar Wilde type who have connected themselves or have been gratuitously connected with the movement. This was not my intention when I started the book; yet as I fossicked through the literature and other material connected with the movement I found little to encourage their inclusion. This is significant because as Kropotkin remarks :

Socialistic literature has never been rich in books. It is written for workers for whom one penny is money, and its main force lies in its small pamphlets and its newspapers. Moreover, he who seeks for information about socialism finds in books little of what he requires most. They contain the theories or the scientific arguments in favour of socialist aspirations, but they give no idea how the workers accept socialist ideals and how they could put them into practice. There remains nothing but to take collections of papers and read them all through - the news as well as the leading articles - the former, perhaps, even more than the latter. Quite a new world of social relations and methods of thought and action is revealed by this reading, which gives an insight into what cannot be found anywhere else - namely, the depth and the moral force of the movement, the degree to which men are imbued with the new theories, their readiness to carry them out in their daily life and to suffer for them. 1

My experience in writing this book absolutely confirmed Kropotkin's judgement. In this 'new world of social relations and methods of thought and action' I found numbers of unsung demi-heroes ( and, of course, not a few unreviled villains ) whose story is considerably more gripping and important than a catalogue of contributions to the more progressive reviews. Such a catalogue, however, would be easier to write. As has been said, the sources for the Anarchist movement are extremely scattered - no central committee minutes exist because there was never a central committee; even quite large circulation papers can only be read in sequence by following fugitive odd copies from library to library. The result of research is a large ragged jigsaw with lots of pieces missing, most convincingly lifelike in its confusion. Inevitably selections have to be made, loose ends ignored or chopped off short to present some semblance of a rounded-out story. It is true that there are dangers to an over-cut-and-dried history; it is probably true to say too that any history of any social movement suffers from too much structure. Yet when the raw documentary stuff of history is confronted, a welter of fragments, stories, biographies, movements, concerns and events burst over the historian. And I, like all the rest, have selected and structured and for all my attempted objectivity have doubtless constructed a piece of the past in my own image. The only way interested readers correct this is to fossick through the libraries, etc., in order to construct a version of their own. Of one thing, however, I am certain : there will never be a final version.

  • 1P. Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, London, 1908, pp. 255-6.