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Moving with the times … but not in step

Colin Ward critiques an interview from New Left Review of Alan Lovell, a regular Peace News writer in the 1960s and a member of the Committee of 100, by Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, looking at how anarchism was perceived within the group. It was first published in Anarchy Number 3, May 1961.

Three conceptions of anarchism emerge from the interview — emotional anarchism, formal anarchism, and the anarchist tradition within the labour movement. (There also emerges an alleged “leading anarchist”, but how many of Lovell’s anarchist acquaintances in the Committee of 100 or in DAC or CND regard Sir Herbert Read in this light?). Lest we should have here the beginning of yet another anarchist myth, it is worth while examining these categories.

Is there really a difference between the “formal anarchist movement” and the “anarchist tradition within the labour movement”? Presumably, like ourselves, Lovell’s questioners regard the Labour movement as something wider than the Labour Party, but if we do, where but in the labour movement are the anarchists to be located? Where else, historically, would we place Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Landauer, or the Russian, Spanish, French, Bulgarian or Latin-American anarchists? Was it not in commemoration of the Chicago anarchists of 1887 that the modern celebration of May Day as a labour festival began? Were Sacco and Vanzetti, Berkman and Emma Goldman, Durand or Durruti, outside the labour movement?

In this country, the “father of anarchism” William Godwin, was the intellectual father of such precursors of socialism as Francis Place, Robert Owen, Thomas Hodgskin, and you have only to read the history of the First International or the life of William Morris to see the extent to which the anarchists were, in the late nineteenth century, an integral part of the labour movement.

The anarchists haven’t changed, but the labour movement, strait-jacketed into one concept of socialism, the Marxist one abroad, the Fabian one here, has changed to its cost. For us, the most interesting characteristic of the trend we call the New Left today, is the way in which some of its adherents have been groping towards an anarchist approach, taking their cue from some older socialist thinkers like Arthur Lewis, with his declaration that

“Contrary to popular belief, Socialism is not committed either by its history or by its philosophy to the glorification of the State or to the extension of its powers. On the contrary, the links of Socialism are with liberalism” and with anarchism, with their emphasis on individual freedom …”

or like G D H Cole with his rediscovery towards the end of his life of the relevance of such thinkers as Bakunin and Kropotkin, and his re-affirmation of his early guild socialist principles.

Another rediscoverer was Iris Murdoch, in her contribution to Conviction, discussing the way in which the Labour Party has reduced every issue to a political formula, with a consequent starvation of the “moral imagination of the young” and a degeneration of socialist philosophy. The guild socialists, she said,

were deeply concerned with the· destruction of community life, the degradation of work, the division of man from man which the economic relationships of capitalism had produced, and they looked to the transformation of existing communities, the trade unions, the factories themselves …

It is now time, she declared, “to go back to the point of divergence …”

Similarly Charles Taylor, examining the quality of life in contemporary Britain in ULR 5, demands “viable smaller societies, on a face-to-face scale” and “the extension of the individual’s power over the collective forces which shape his life”, and E. P. Thompson (who has come a long way in the last five years), writes in NLR 6, that

we can only find out how to break through our present political conventions, and help people to think of socialism as something done by people and not for people or to people, by pressing in new ways on the ground. One socialist youth club of a quite new kind, in East London, or Liverpool or Leeds; one determined municipal council, probing the possibility of new kinds of municipal ownership in the face of Government opposition; one tenants’ association with a new dynamic, pioneering on its own account new patterns of social welfare — play-centres, nursery facilities, community services for and by the women — involving people in the discussion and solution of problems of town planning, racial intercourse, leisure facilities; one pit, factory, or sector of nationalised industry where new forms of workers’ control can actually be forced on management …

Here he is talking what is very like our own language. Yet among the writers of the New Left there are also strange inconsistencies and hangovers from orthodox socialism and Marxism. Some of its ablest thinkers have learned nothing from the history of socialism in our time. Raymond Williams puts the formula thus:

What is the alternative to capitalism? Socialism. What is a socialist culture? State control.

Such a mountain of analysis: such a political mouse! The New Left needs the lessons which it can draw from the anarchist approach; the question is whether it is capable of learning them.

The editor of NLR 6, discussing the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, writes of “the anarchist case, which I believe to be a felt but unarticulated strand in CND politics, and which is weak largely because it has not been put. In any event, that anarchism and libertarianism has been a most fertile element in the campaign …” But the anarchist case has been put, for anyone who cared to read it. The point is that it does not appear to have been taken, and if the anarchist strand is weak, it is precisely because of the lack of what Lovell calls “serious anarchist thinking”.

Like him we have a sympathy with the people he calls emotional anarchists — “people like students, intellectuals, unattached people”, the people who have, as he suggested elsewhere in his interview, “an emotional bias towards anarchism, but it is very much of an emotional bias and completely unthought-out”. We wish they would start thinking it out. We want in fact that serious anarchist thinking which the emotional anarchists aren’t doing, and which, in his odd way, he thinks would be disastrous in the “formal anarchists”, the people who actually call themselves anarchists, and who know the word’s meaning, its history and its literature.

What is anarchism about?

ANARCHISM (from the Greek an- and archia, contrary to authority) is the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government — harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilised being …

~ Encyclopedia Britannica

THE IDEA OF SOCIETY WITHOUT AUTHORITY has found expression throughout human history, from Lao-Tse in ancient China and Zeno of Kitium in classical Greece, to its first systematic formulation in William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793, and its elaboration in different directions during the nineteenth century by Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin. Today small and scattered groups of anarchists exist throughout the world, from Siberia to South America.

Their numerical strength is impossible to ascertain, for the anarchists are not a party, membership cards and voting papers do not appeal to them. Since they are seeking not power but personal autonomy, they are not concerned with counting heads or ballot papers, but in awakening men and women to personal and social independence and responsibility.

Looking at history, the anarchists see two recurring tendencies: the tradition of authority, hierarchy, the state, and that of liberty, free association, society. This distinction between the state and society, between the political principle and the social principle is crucial to anarchist thought. In Tom Paine’s graphic antithesis,

Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections; the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing; but government even in its best state is a necessary evil … Government, like dress, is the badge of our lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.

The anarchists go further than this, seeing the principle of authority as an unnecessary evil, and to the objection that anarchy, however desirable, would only be possible if all men were angels, they reply with William Morris’s phrase that no man is good enough to be another man’s master. It is precisely because all men are fallible that none should surrender their own power over themselves to others.

Three main trends can be seen in classical anarchism: that of anarchist communism, associated with Bakunin and Kropotkin, which beside the usual criticism of the state, its punitive and property systems, postulates the commune, the local association for the organisation of social amenities, as the basis of a free society through territorial and regional federations; that of anarcho-syndicalism which reached its greatest practical application in revolutionary Spain in 1936, which sees the struggle for workers’ control of the means of production as the key to the transformation of society; and that of individualist anarchism which puts its emphasis on the autonomy or self-realisation of the person. In this trend several schools of thought can be discerned, one of pure individualism, represented by thinkers like Thoreau and the German philosopher of ‘conscious egoism’ Max Stirner; another developing from the American Josiah Warren whose ideas, blended with the mutualism of Proudhon and the individualism of Herbert Spencer, formed the basis of the anarchism propagated in 19th century America by Benjamin Tucker, while there is also an ethical or religious anarchism represented by Tolstoy, and, to some extent, by Gandhi.

What unites these differing trends is their repudiation of the state and of the political struggle for the control of the state machine. Most would accept Marx’s definition of the state as “the executive committee of the ruling class” but all would repudiate the Marxist metaphysic of the conquest of state power as the pre-condition of its “withering away”. (And the history of the Soviet Union confirms Bakunin’s prophetic analysis of the future of Marxism in his disputes with Marx’s faction in the First International in the eighteen-seventies). In other respects the teaching of the classical anarchists differ. Proudhon, for instance, first attacked the notion of private property in his famous dictum “property is theft”, but later took the view that “property is freedom”, though it is obvious that in the first instance he was talking of the private ownership of social assets, and in the second, of a man’s possession of his house or small-holding. The important thing however, in the consensus of anarchist teachings, is not the notion of ownership but of access to the means of production. Similarly on the question of exchange: some anarchist thinkers have repudiated the idea of money, others have regarded money as the most convenient mechanism of exchange but have repudiated the notion of interest, others have evolved such ideas as that of ‘labour tickets’, while others have boldly proclaimed, like Kropotkin, that there is enough of everything for everybody, and have supported the principle of “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.”

Different stages in the social evolution of various countries during the last hundred years have reflected themselves in the changing emphasis in anarchist ideas. Free associations of independent producers, syndicalist movements among industrial workers, independent co-operative communities, campaigns of civil disobedience and war resistance, the formulation of social utopias, have all been responses to current social and political conditions, as were the desperate struggles of the anarchists in actual revolutionary situations in Russia and the Ukraine, Germany. Mexico and Spain.

What does anarchism mean today?

TODAY IT IS NOT POSSIBLE to speak with the confident revolutionary optimism of our predecessors. The experiences of our own century have given us a healthy suspicion of rhetoric and of universal panaceas. We have seen too many and we know too much.

What are we to say here in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century? We are a tiny minority of disaffected citizens in the centre of a disappearing empire whose economic structure is still geared to an obsolete rôle, an appendage to one of the two contending military and economic power blocs. What is the task of the anarchists in such a society? Can we draw up, not a programme, but simply a list of those fields where anarchist activity is useful and in which, according to personal predilection or opportunity, we can promote our ideas?

War and Peace

One of the characteristics of governments is their maintenance of what Martin Buber calls the “latent external crisis”, the fear of an external enemy, by which they maintain their ascendency over their own subjects. This has in our day become the major activity of governments and their biggest field of expenditure and effort, reaching the stage where they propose to decimate each others’ populations at the touch of a button. War is the trade of governments, and obviously the anarchists support, in common with other factions of the left, all anti-war activities, but they can hardly be expected to see anything but illusions in calls for summit conferences or in the signing of petitions. The petitions go to the wrong address; they should be addressed not to governments but to people.

We have to build up a disobedient and unreliable public, widening and deepening the impulses which find expression in the three prongs of the nuclear disarmament movement. War is not the result of the H-bomb, the H-bomb is the logical outcome of the pursuit of war, which in turn is only possible because governments are able to harness their obedient subjects to it. But there are deeper causes; not merely the clash of ideologies, the division of the world into have and have-nots, but the dissatisfactions and frustrations which evidently make the idea of war acceptable for millions of people. Every day you meet people who look back to the last war not as a remembered horror but with a fond nostalgia. The general state of opinion on minor wars like the Suez invasion or the war in Cyprus which was switched off like a light when it suited the government, will tell you that war is tolerated because it is found tolerable. We have to uncover the dulled and muffled nerve of moral and social responsibility which will make it intolerable.

The Person and the Family

The mass of mankind, Thoreau observed tartly, lead lives of quiet desperation. Is this why we tolerate war — as an exciting break in meaningless routine? And yet who but ourselves has decreed the situation in which work is drained of meaning and purpose except as a source of income or status, marriage and the family a trap, leisure a desperate attempt to stave off boredom? Look around you at the domestic resentments, the glum faces emerging from factory and office into the tedium of the rush-hour journey home, the frantic consumption at the behest of the hidden persuaders. How desperately we need to find different ways of life which will liberate instead of imprisoning the individual. And how we need the anarchists to experiment with new ways of living, a new assertion of individual values, more dignity and more satisfaction in daily life.

Work and Industry

At one time, forty years ago, there was a strong syndicalist stream in the trade union movement, calling for workers’ control of industry. It died away, as the industrial workers pinned their faith on the Labour Party’s programme of nationalisation and concentrated on winning a bigger slice of the capitalist cake. One of the most formidable tasks before us is the re-kindling of the urge for responsibility and autonomy in industry: to put workers’ control back on the agenda. (Anarchy 2 was devoted to a symposium on this topic).

Crime and Punishment

To anarchist thinkers from Godwin onwards, crime has been, not the manifestation of individual wickedness, but a symptom of material or mental poverty and deprivation. From Kropotkin with his study of Organised Vengeance Called Justice and his dictum that prisons are the universities of crime, to Alex Comfort’s modern study of political delinquency, the anarchists have opposed the system of retributive justice which creates more criminals than it cures, and have sought the identification and avoidance of the causes of crime. A wealth of evidence has been accumulated, even officially which supports this view and there is here an immense field for anarchist effort in changing the social climate and public attitudes.


There have been in this century great changes in educational theory and practice, which represent a partial and incomplete, if unacknowledged victory for ideas which are libertarian in origin. We are however, now in a period when the more sophisticated educational theorists are almost joining hands with those who never got that far, in reacting against the alleged influences of the advocates of freedom in education. Social pressures and parental ‘status-anxiety’ are already impinging on those partial advances, (see Anarchy 1). The anarchist movement, which has included some very astute educational thinkers, needs urgently to re-define and re-assert ideas, and to counter the counter-revolution in educational thought, pointing out that the trouble with ‘child-centred’ education is not that it has gone too far, but that it has not gone far enough, and in fact, in many schools, has not even begun.

Decentralisation and Autonomy

The modern state is infinitely more centralised and ubiquitous than that of the time of the classical anarchists. It has also adopted or usurped many of the functions which are those of society, and which Kropotkin, for instance, in his Mutual Aid, listed as evidence of the innate sociality of man which makes the imposition from above of state organisation unnecessary. In social organisation and in industry, and consequently in the distribution of population, centralisation has been the great characteristic of modern life, and one which militates against the possibility of anything like an anarchist society. The tendency itself is, however, one which changes in means of communication and in sources of motive power have already rendered obsolete, and there is a great deal of sociological data to demonstrate its undesirability in human terms. The anarchists and those who think like them on this issue, have to change the centralising habit of mind for one which seeks decentralisation and devolution, pressing for more and more local autonomy in all aspects of life.

The World Outside

Nothing stands still. The great monolith of the Soviet empire is by no means as monolithic as it was. A generation has grown up which is bored and dissatisfied with the chanting of Marxist slogans and which is equally unimpressed by the “free enterprise” of the West. The workers’ councils which sprang up in Poland and Hungary in the revolutionary period of 1956, Tito’s fears that his officially-sponsored version of syndicalism from above might get out of hand and turn into the real thing, the “silent pressures from below” in the Soviet Union itself, indicate how tendencies which have more in common with anarchism than with orthodox socialism are ready to spring into life where we least expect them. The trends in India represented by the Gramdan movement as the successor to Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan, and by Jayaprakash Narayan‘s advocacy of “village democracy”, the moral example of Danilo Dolci‘s activities in Sicily, all such movements suggest a possible role for the anarchist, outside and independent of the struggle for power which canalises the activities of so many socially conscious people into sterile political posturing.

A Different kind of Socialism

In the New Left, and among the people who have been roused into activity by the nuclear disarmament campaign, there is interest and concern for all these fields of activity. But as long as they ruefully give their support to the Labour Party as a lesser evil, or devote their energy to trying to influence its policies, they are simply evading the need to work out the implications and explore the possibilities of a different kind of socialism: the means of effecting social change without recourse to the conquest of the coercive machinery of the state.

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