George Walford: Anarchists Don’t Matter

Bulletin of Anarchist Research, No. 23, presented announcements of two talks on anarchism delivered to the Anarchist Research Group and reviews of The Anarchist Yearbook and The Anarchists; the Anarchist Workers Group wrote about their journal, Chris Rubinstein discussed Blake’s proximity to anarchism, John Moore wrote on his Anarchy and Ecstasy, Amedeo Bertolo discussed anarchist ideas on freedom, and other articles, those by Peter Neville and Ken Smith for example, took up anarchist concerns. Attention was directed inwards, towards anarchism and anarchists, their beliefs and activities.

Surely all very right and proper in a anarchist research journal? Well, yes – but. Suppose that by some miracle (and it would really be a miracle, far beyond trivialities like stopping the sun or raising the dead) all the people calling themselves anarchists were to agree on everything said in this issue of BAR. Go even further; imagine, if you can, that all anarchists reach full agreement on all the issues that now divide them. Would we be appreciably closer to the anarchist society? Not so long as the anarchists movement stayed anywhere near its present size.

After all the work, the effort and the sacrifice, anarchism remains a thin voice of protest, barely audible against the roar of the state and its supporters. Overwhelmingly, it is the non-anarchists who make the big decisions. Not the rulers and the bosses – they are hardly more than puppets, thrown aside if they fail to produce the desired results – but the non-anarchist people, in their thousands of millions; they decide what sort of society we shall have, and they do not choose anarchy.

On the face of it, this is absurd. Anarchism offers a society in which people shall be free to do as they like, provided they don’t interfere with the freedom of others. Surely all sensible people must support this. But most of them don’t. Why not? Anarchism cannot tell us, and yet it is upon the answer to this question that the possibility of an anarchist society depends.

One article in BAR 23 attempts to answer: the review of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. The reviewer scorns Bloom’s elitist ideas and blames the widespread failure to behave in a way he regards as ration upon “the crisis-ridden school system” and “the market-dominated madhouse.” This is one version of a belief held by many anarchists, that the conditions of life in present society account for the general rejection of anarchism. Unfortunately this explains too much, for if it be sound then everybody subject to those conditions must reject anarchism, while in fact a minority do accept it. A solution adequate to the problem has to possess differnetial explanatory power, it has to show how it comes about that, consistently over a century and more, a small minority of aristocrats, of capitalists, of workers, of the rich, of the poor, of academics, of men, of women, of the highly educated and of those almost without education has accepted anarchism while in each of these groups the overwhelming majority rejects or ignores it.

It is this majority that makes the big decisions. In trying to understand why we don’t have a fully anarchist society, anarchists don’t matter. The non-anarchists are responsible, it is mainly their behaviour and the reasons for their presence that anarchists need to understand.

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Revolutionaries make a practice of crediting earlier disorders to an inarticulate mass striving blindly towards what they now offer. In Riot, Risings and Revolution (Hutchinson) Sir Ian Gilmour, former conservative minister, disputes this for at least the Eighteenth Century. In the words of Roy Porter, reviewing the book:

.”.. snatching the clothes off the backs of the Marxists [Sir Ian argues that] popular protest was primarily defensive or ‘conservative’ – or, as it might be said, the bulk of the commonality were instinctive conservatives.”

He supports his contention with historical evidence.

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West country people know holiday-makers as grockles and the launches that take them for trips round the bay as grocklebarges. On a recent trip (on business of course) we spotted several fine specimens of the adult male, the greater red-bellied grockle.

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.