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Something in the Porter

The Strange Career of British Anarchism

A review of Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward (Oakland, PM Press, 401 pp., Dec 2011)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, British anarchism was making a long-delayed, if modest, appearance as an intellectual and political movement. At about the same time, a prominent English economist tried to describe, briefly, the kind of world he would like to live in. He wished that “human society may become a friendly society” organized as “an affiliated order of branches, some small, each with its own life in freedom, each linked to the rest by common purpose and by bonds to serve that purpose.”

The author of these words wasn't Herbert Read, Alex Comfort, George Woodcock, or any of the other UK writers and artists who defined themselves as anarchists. Nor did this statement appear in Freedom, the London-based magazine that was reintroducing anarchism to a small but growing segment of the British public. It was spoken by William Beveridge, one of the architects of the postwar British welfare state, including its old-age insurance provisions and the National Health Service, and a pioneer of state-based central planning.

Was it something in the water – or, perhaps, the porter? Is there such things as an “indigenous” form of anarchism in Britain — and in other societies, perhaps — that even many career statists aspire to, if they only had the chance?

On the surface, British history over the last century has been a triumph of political and economic centralization. Labour governments created the welfare state, which replaced cooperative, working class-based institutions of mutual aid and self-help with state-run programs. Later, Conservative governments worked to break the power of labor unions and directed more and more of the economy into the hands of a small elite of corporate executives, bankers, and financial speculators. Both parties consolidated political power under an elite-educated, like-minded cadre of professionals and technocrats. Britain, the United Kingdom, was about bigness.

But as Beveridge's statement suggests, not everyone wanted history to turn out that way — even some of the people who drove it there. Something has continued to bubble under the surface. Colin Ward, perhaps the leading British anarchist thinker of the postwar period, wrote in his remarkable 1973 book, Anarchy in Action, that an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste…. Once you begin to look at human society from an anarchist point of view you discover that the alternatives are already there, in the interstices of the dominant power structure. If you want to build a free society, the parts are all at hand.”

Those “seeds” — where they came from, what they flowered into during the postwar decades — are the subject of Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow, David Goodway's study of British anarchism, first published in 2006 and now revised, updated, and republished, for the first time, in the U.S. by PM Press. This is an important study – the first that drills deeply into Britain's idiosyncratic progression from hard-to-categorize 19th century socialist reformers like William Morris to major anarchist figures like Colin Ward and Stuart Christie. It doesn't pretend to be a proper history of a political movement — which would be quite short, since until quite recently anarchism in the UK was more of an intellectual tradition than a movement with a grassroots following. And it doesn't take in, for instance, the mutually beneficial relationship between anarchy and punk rock, which was, in a sense, one of the fruits of the progression he discusses.

Organized into discreet chapters on 11 writers who contributed to the development of intellectual anarchism in the UK, Goodway's book lays out a persuasive explanation why anarchism developed in the particular direction it did there. In addition, he makes a strong argument for British anarchism as one of the most influential strands in the entire anarchist tradition since the war — far more so than the Russian, French, Italian, and Spanish movements that defined it most strongly in its earlier days.

What was different about British anarchism? To begin with, it was never a mass movement, as it was for a time in continental Europe and the U.S. This was for two reasons, argues Goodway, a UK academic who has edited collections of writings by two of his subjects, Alex Comfort and Herbert Read, and who was a founder of the Oxford Anarchist Group in the early 1960s (I should also note that he is a friend and that I am thanked in the Preface to the new edition). First, Britain offered considerably more political and personal freedom than did continental governments. Therefore, a politics built around explicit opposition to the state wasn't as appealing. Britain didn't experience large-scale, working-class immigration from the continent, as did the U.S., so it didn't import a big bloc of anti-state activists, either. Second, state-socialist groups like the Fabian Society and, later, the Labour Party were there to fill the gap, giving a statist slant to the politicized working-class culture that developed starting in the late Victorian era.

On the continent, the most celebrated anarchist thinkers and organizers tended to come from the working class or, sometimes, from the upper classes, like the aristocrats Baukunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta. The writers who Goodway identifies as the progenitors of contemporary British anarchism had very different origins — largely middle-class. They were also highly educated — eight of the 11 attended either Oxford or Cambridge. They included some of the most famous British cultural figures of their day, from Oscar Wilde to Aldous Huxley to the novelist John Cowper Powys to the poet and scientist Alex Comfort, author of the bestseller The Joy of Sex.

Not all of them explicitly identified as anarchists — Goodway uses the term “left libertarian” as an umbrella — and because they all had distinguished careers in other areas, teasing out the common threads in their thinking has been difficult until now. Some of his subjects almost literally lived double lives. Comfort was an anarchist speaker and pamphleteer while pursuing an increasingly distinguished scientific career. The art historian and literary editor Herbert Read was an outspoken anarcho-pacifist even while he advised clients like the American millionaire art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Wilde's public profile was perhaps the most radically split, even before his trial and imprisonment. In England, he was a famous wit and the author of brittle drawing-room comedies like The Importance of Being Earnest. In France, he was known as a poet and dramatist associated with the Symbolists, many of whom were also anarchists and admired his important anarchist essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” — which was largely ignored in the UK.

Goodway not only highlights the ideological connections between his writers, but unearths previously little-known personal connections between them. For example, he examines the correspondence between Powys and Emma Goldman (of which he's edited a volume), and the friendships and rivarlies between George Orwell, an idiosyncratic socialist; Comfort; the poet and anarchist historian George Woodcock; and Herbert Read. An astonishing range of major thinkers were also drawn to the politics of the British anarchists at one time or another, including Bertrand Russell, John Middleton Murry, E.P. Thompson, Rudolf Rocker, the American anarchists Dwight Macdonald and Paul Goodman, and Gene Sharp, the guru of nonviolent civil resistance.

But the middle class origins of Goodway's subjects — and, perhaps, the fact that many of them were successful in more conventional ways — had a distinct impact on the anarchism they developed. The British anarchists tended to be more deeply preoccupied with individual liberty and self-expression. Wilde and the social philosopher Edward Carpenter, for example, were associated, in different ways, with the early struggle for gay liberation. Powys and Comfort both condemned sexual repression as going hand-in-hand with political repression, as did other British anarchists. And Powys's work attempts to reconcile a radical form of individualism with a non-hierarchical, cooperative vision of society.

British anarchists also stressed the practical over the theoretical — even, at times, over explicit political action. Carpenter, who supported the “labor movement” whether it accepted the state or not, advocated a return to living simply off the land. The intriguing group of intellectuals around the Adelphi, a socialist magazine, attempted to do so during the Second World War, forming communities in the margins of the established order that could form the basis for a future voluntary society. They thus anticipated later ideas such as the Temporary Autonomous Zone. In his 1936 book, Ends and Means, Huxley advocated a radical decentralization of economic and social life into voluntary cooperative communities, which he argued would free the people from government and the corporate structure. Before he became sidetracked by quasi-religious mysticism, Huxley was inquiring into practical ways to put this into practice, such as by harnessing solar energy.

As a result, Goodway considers the author of Brave New World, along with the American urban historian and critic Lewis Mumford, to be a precursor of the “new anarchism” of the postwar era, which likewise concentrated on finding practical anarchist solutions to known problems, in part by finding the conjunction between anarchism and scientific fields like biology, psychology, and alternative technologies. Figures associated wit this trend included Read and the American Paul Goodman, who were influential thinkers on education; Murray Bookchin, who spliced environmentalism to anarchist economics; and Colin Ward, who identified the rudiments of a larger cooperative society in squatter communities, food and tenant coops, and other horizontally organized, mutual aid-based organizations. The influence of all of these thinkers extends far beyond the anarchist community, pushing environmentalists and the “small is beautiful” movement to question whether their goals can be achieved within the framework of a centralized state.

British anarchists tended to shy away from an explicit class analysis, however. Read, who came from a family of tenant farmers and didn't attend either of the great universities, was the only one of Goodway's subjects who identified as an anarcho-syndicalist. They also tended to frown on violence and revolution, arguing instead for an evolutionary approach to a classless, non-hierarchical society. A strong pacifist streak runs through British anarchism as well, stemming partly from the traumatic experience of the First World War. Comfort, still in his early twenties at the time, was one of Britain's most prominent pacifists and conscientious objectors during the next great war. “Pacifism rests solely upon the historical theory of anarchism,” he wrote in 1945. A year earlier, he was blacklisted from the BBC after he drafted a declaration against the British and American firebombing of German cities and persuaded a who's-who of UK cultural figures to sign it, including Read, Benjamin Britten, Julian Symons, and Clifford Curzon.

This symbolic rip in the image of national unity that the UK projected during the war was perhaps the first occasion when many British even realized there were anarchists in their midst. Comfort wasn't a conventional pacifist — he didn't object to armed resistance against occupiers and oppressors, for example, and even write a novel celebrating the wartime French Maquis. But Goodway pinpoints this “anarcho-pacifist” tendency as one of the most influential facets of British anarchism. After the war, Comfort was one of the most prominent and active supporters of the nuclear disarmament movement in the UK, which oriented itself almost from the start around non-violent, mass direct action and activist self-organizing. As such, it contributed powerfully to the tradition that includes the New Left, the movement against corporate globalization and the “Occupy” movement that erupted this year on Wall Street, in the Middle East, and around the world.

It's not altogether unfair, however, to accuse British anarchism — especially the prewar thinkers who Goodway discusses — of a tendency to evade the need to grapple directly with the state-capitalist power structure. In Island, Huxley's 1964 utopian novel, a decentralized, cooperative society is achieved through reforms instituted by a Malayan raja. Utopian, indeed. But is it really possible for ordinary people to become fully independent economically while the state and the class structure are still in place — especially in as class-ridden a country as the UK? A succession of British anarchists and fellow travelers, from Carpenter to Huxley to Comfort, seemed to think so, if the effort was supplemented with nonviolent civil disobedience. But was that really sufficient to win the struggle against powerful forces with vast resources – and everything to lose?

Another development Goodway traces is the postwar shift by many former Trotskyites in both the U.S. and the UK into a form of left libertarianism that closely resembles anarchism. In the U.S., Dwight Macdonald and Murray Bookchin openly declared themselves anarchists. Others kept their distance. One of these was Christopher Pallis — another of Goodway's “double lives,” who was a prominent clinical neurologist while conducting a parallel, underground career as a left-socialist organizer, journalist, and pamphleteer under the pseudonyms “Maurice Brinton” and “Martin Grainger.” Pallis came to hold views on social and economic reconstruction that are startlingly similar to anarchism. Yet in the 19060s, he complained of the rejection of the class struggle, the anti-intellectualism, the preoccupation with transcendental morality and with personal salvation that characterize so many of the anarchists of today.

Pallis doesn't appear to have been especially well-read in the literature or theory of anarchism, and of course, there's often something slightly knee-jerk in Marxists' complaints about their libertarian rivals. But Emma Goldman had noticed something similar in the late 1930s, when she solicited a statement in support of the Spanish anarchists cause from Huxley and he answered her with a refusal, accompanied by a disquisition on the need to decentralize industrial production — right away, presumably. (Goodway's book also includes a side-splittingly funny account of how the obstreperous Goldman was greeted by typically reserved English audiences in 1936–37, when she was working in the UK on the behalf of the Spanish anarchists — a classic episode of British-American culture clash.) Similarly, Goodway notes that Comfort's strong moral stands against war and nuclear weapons weren't accompanied by a robust analysis explaining why they were still with us. Instead, he diagnosed the people who perpetrated these horrors as being pathological and demanded that the healthy portion of society disempower them. Fine so far as it goes, but not much help in disentangling the social-political web that the state weaves to protect its instruments.

Perhaps the most distinctive and durable impact of British anarchism, then, isn't anarcho-pacifism, but the vision of an economically decentralized, cooperative society that seems to animate all of Goodway's subjects, from Carpenter and Wilde to Comfort and Ward. Even Chris Pallis, whose description of a revolutionary organization could have been drawn straight from Proudhon or Kropotkin (who he described as “muddleheaded”). Such an organization would “anticipate the socialist future of society rather than mirror its capitalist past,” would give “local organs … the fullest responsibility,” and would practice direct democracy  wherever possible.” “All central bodies having power of decision involving others should be constituted by delegates, these being elected by those they represent and revocable by them, at any time.”

If there is one specific wish that unites all of the very distinctive individuals in Goodways' book, in fact, it's for the unitary nation to dissolve, allowing regional and local cultures and identities to reassert themselves – something that can't happen so long as they state still stands over them. Powys laid out his most comprehensive vision of a non-hierarchical society in Porius, a vast historical novel about ethnic Welsh resistance to Roman, Christian, and Saxon domination. Similarly, in a 1980s interview, E.P. Thompson, the great Marxist historian of the English working class, offered a vision of a free Europe in which

the nation-state begins to decline in importance…. One would hope to see what used to be called workers' control or greater autonomy, smaller units of control; public industry being co-operative, or corporations municipally controlled, and so on. And that would underpin, perhaps, a growth in local and regional consciousness.

So perhaps there's something in the porter. Which helps explain why some of Goodway's subjects could appeal to so wide a group of admirers. Emma Goldman, when she visited England in 1925, called a visit with Edward Carpenter “the fulfillment of a wish cherished for a quarter of a century.” Yet several members of Britain's first Labour Cabinet, the previous year, were old friends and admirers of Carpenter, and the prime minister, Ramsey MacDonald, contributed to a memorial volume following Carpenter's death in 1929.

No such demonstrations took pace when Colin Ward, a “real” anarchist as opposed to a fellow traveler, died last year. The story Goodway tells in his book is that of a movement with a different trajectory than the anarchism of Russia or Spain. It started with the musings of a succession of highly individualistic British intellectuals who had no “native” anarchist movement to use as a reference point – just what they observed among their country's rural population and working class. Thanks in large part to Ward, Comfort, the Freedom group, the Anarchist Black Cross, and a few other writers and organizers including Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer, British anarchism grew into a coherent body of thought, with the beginnings of a popular following, between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s — about the time the Sex Pistols released “Anarchy in the UK,” as it happens. Today, it is very much present in Occupy London — an ongoing campaign of nonviolent direct action against a crushing, state-imposed economic damp-down which Alex Comfort would certainly have plunged into, headfirst.

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Eric Laursen is an independent journalist and longtime anarchist activist, writer, and organizer. He is co-author of Understanding the Crash (Soft Skull Press, 2010) and the forthcoming The People's Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan (AK Press, Spring 2012).