George Walford: Anarchist Extracts

George Woodcock’s Anarchism; a history of libertarian ideas and movements (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1962) is one of the standard books. It sometimes gives the impression that the author’s ideas are in the condition of a supersaturated solution, wanting nothing but a tap for them to crystallize out as systematic ideology. Here we present some of these passages as extracts, paraphrased and abbreviated, with occasional comments (all in brackets to avoid confusion) but no attempt to work the material into an article. Woodcock also presents views very different from those of s.i., and here these have been ignored; anybody wanting a balanced view of the book should read it for themselves. (The initial figures are page-numbers).

7. Anarchism is not simple, and has been more widely misunderstood than most movements or doctrines.

7. Anarchists cannot be defined as repudiators and opponents of authority; although they all do these things, non-anarchists also do them. Anarchist rebellion is distinguished by being intended as part of the transition to a more desirable society.

8. Deriving from anarchos, “without a ruler,” the term can validly be used to indicate chaos, but it can also refer to orderliness achieved without the need for rule to be imposed. The first meaning gives the popular stereotype, the second the anarchist as he most often appears in reality. (Or she; Woodcock was writing in the innocent days when “he” could cover both sexes)

8-9. Originally used (during the French Revolution) as a term of denigration “anarchist” came (like Christian, Quaker, and Tory) to be welcomed by its targets, Proudhon first among them.

11. Woodcock defines anarchism as “a system of social thought, aiming at fundamental changes in the structure of society and particularly – for this is the common element uniting all its forms – at the replacement of the authoritarian state by some form of non-governmental cooperation between free individuals.” (That seems to rule out clearly enough any conception of anarchism as a spontaneous or natural impulse)

11. Anarchists tend to emphasise the negative side of their doctrine; the value of anarchist writings lies more in their cutting analysis of authoritarian institutions than in any account of what is intended to supplant them.

13. Saying (note the four qualifying terms in a phrase of ten words) “Anarchists may be substantially agreed on their ultimate general aims,” he is definite about their tactical disagreements.

13-14. Anarchists generally have never adopted violence as a policy. To the extent that anarchists use this method at all it is a feature they share with members of other movements. For their celebrities anarchists prefer writers to fighters.

19. All anarchists agree that human beings naturally possess the qualities needed for living together in peaceful co-operation. (They are doubtless right, but the evidence is also strong for natural possession of the contrary qualities; human beings are distinguished from animals by their high degree of freedom from genetic limitation, their wide range of potentiality).

21. The visitor to the golden future Morris described in News from Nowhere returned to the anarchist actuality of “the acrimonious debates that were wrecking the Socialist League” (and still wrack the anarchist movement today).

24. Anarchism is not, in the sense that Marxism claims to be, a class movement. Bakunin, Kropotkin, Cherkesov, Tolstoy, Malatesta and Cafiero all came from either the country gentry or the aristocracy and Godwin, Nieuwenhuis and Faure were former clergymen or seminarists.

28. Anarchism repudiates political action while being itself a part of politics, conditioned by the authoritarian institutions it opposes. Dismissing all efforts to achieve radical change by reformist means as futile, and noting that all attempts at coercive change have resulted in dictatorships, anarchism holds that nothing less than complete freedom in one step is acceptable, even while recognising that this may be impossible.

30. Finding the authority of a majority no more acceptable than that of a government, anarchism rejects democracy, asserting the sovereignty of the individual’s reason against the power of the majority. “Right lies not in numbers, but in reason.” (Compare the [A-] SPGB: “It’s not the numbers but the validity of the ideas that counts.”)

72. Woodcock reports, apparently with approval, Godwin’s belief that if everybody listened to reason the result would be concord. (Yet within the Conservative Party, with its scepticism of reason, the level of intellectual concord is notably higher than within the anarchist movement where, he tells us, reason and conscience reign supreme).

In writing of Spain during the Civil War Woodcock follows the normal practice of accepting as anarchist a movement which acted for the most part in ways contrary to the spirit and traditions of anarchism. Here his views depart from those implied by s.i. while the events he relates support them:

368. Having worked for a generation against established authority, striving for the anarchist Armageddon with the liberated society to follow, the Spanish anarchists found themselves, in late 1936, still so far from their goal that they could resist the imposition of tyranny only by alliance with the authoritarian parties they had been opposing. Not only reformist members of the “mass” CNT but also the insurrectionist leader of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) joined the government, he becoming Minister of Justice and seeming to enjoy his position. The FAI Peninsular Committee publicly justified these actions. The May days in Barcelona, the governmental coup that destroyed anarchist influence in Catalonia, took place when anarchist ministers were in the government.

371. Woodcock quotes Vernon Richards’ admiration of the Catalan workers’ achievement in maintaining transportation, public services and bread supplies. (They had operated these businesses before, why should they have been unable to continue? The surprising thing is that both Woodcock and Richards should think that their doing so in some way demonstrated the practicality of anarchism, while well aware that they were working under a government).

(As this goes to print news comes that the book has been reprinted with a Postscript.)

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REVIEWING Wolfgang Iser’s Prospecting: from reader response to literary anthology (Johns Hopkins UP, TLS 16 Mar) Terry Eagleton reports the author’s contention that (to translate what he says into s.i.) meaning does not lie passively within the text, waiting to be extracted, but results from interpretation in accordance with the reader’s assumptions. Eagleton protests that the text must play the predominant part, for otherwise “there would be as many Emmas as there are readers.” That difficulty weakens with the recognition that the assumptions, with which each reader interprets a text, are in their main features not peculiar to that reader. The many readers have only a limited number of substantially different basic assumptions between them, resulting in as many Emmas as readers certainly, but ones clearly belonging to a small number of families.

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ROAD accidents? By protecting drivers from the worst possible consequences of a collision current practices encourage them. Greater exposure for the drivers – no seat belts, hard edges around them and dangerous glass in their part of the windscreen – would mean greater safety for their potential victims. One reason for protecting drivers is to reduce the load on medical services, but that can be covered by extending third-party insurance.

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AGAINST the belief that small societies offer freedom, anthropologists consistently note the restrictions imposed by hunter-gatherer communities upon the thought and speech of their members; this feature has survived. In The Neon Bible John Kennedy Toole tells of small-town life in the American deep South in the 1940s, and his child-narrator describes the crushing weight of uniformity. Everybody had to conform in doing, talking, liking and hating, to be different was to be forced to leave. (Based on a review in TLS 30 Mar).

from Ideological Commentary 45, May 1990.