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Brian Morris and the anarchist idea

Brian Morris’s work as an academic over many decades has taken in everything from how cultures name things to how they interact with nature, religion and the concept of self. Since the 1960s he has also been active as an anarchist and has taken a particular interest in social ecology.

Brian has written for many publications including Freedom and has published several books on figures such as Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin and Murray Bookchin, as well as taking on the topic of anarchism and ecology in a series of books such as Anthropology, Ecology, and Anarchism (PM Press) in 2014 and Visions of Freedom: Critical Writings on Ecology and Anarchism (Black Rose) in 2018.

Tell us about your early life and influences

I am at heart a working-class lad from the Black Country, with a fascination for the natural world. I have had a somewhat odd academic background. I failed my eleven-plus and left school at the age of 15 to work in an iron foundry in West Bromwich, like all my male forebears. While working in the foundry I severely damaged my right hand in a machine. For that I was awarded £120 working men’s compensation – a lot of money in those days.

This enabled me to leave home aged 20, after undertaking my two-year National Service as a seaman-navigator in the RASC. In October 1957 I sailed from Amsterdam to Cape Town, and after hitch-hiking around South-Central Africa for about five months I eventually obtained employment as a tea planter in Malawi (then Nyasaland). I worked as a tea planter for more than seven years, eventually sitting and passing five GCE “O” levels at the age of 29. I then returned to the UK. Failing to get into university to study biology (ecology) – my cherished ambition – I trained as a teacher at Brighton College of Education in the late 1960s. It was there that I first engaged in socialist politics.

The main intellectual influences on my life were not philosophers, nor even academics, but popular naturalists such as Charles Darwin, Ernest Thompson Seton Gordon and W. H. Hudson. As a teenager I avidly read their nature writings. Apart from Darwin, all have been forgotten. My intellectual outlook on life has therefore always been one that is realist, historical and ecological – a form of evolutionary naturalism.

How did you get into anarchist politics?

Although I have always been something of a rebel – even as a boy I flouted the law of trespass – I became an anarchist largely due to two events in my life. The first was that my wife, Jacqui, sensing, perhaps, my rebellious spirit, gave me as a birthday present in October 1965 George Woodcock’s Anarchism. Although much derided these days – quite unfairly – this book opened my eyes to what to me then was a completely new political vision.

The second event was a meeting on comprehensive education that I attended in February 1966, at Conway Hall in London. It was to hear a lecture on “Education or Indoctrination” by Madeline Simms. After the lecture a lively debate ensued during which a rather large Bakunin-like working class bloke spoke out forcibly about the rights of children. He appeared to be quite a misfit. I overheard one person remark, rather disparagingly: “Oh he’s only an anarchist.” Quite by chance I met up with him later in Red Lion Square. I asked outright “are you an anarchist?” “Yes” he replied, and we got talking about it. His name was Bill Gates, and he gave me the address of an anarchist bookshop called Freedom.

On that cold night in February 1966, we said our farewells. I never saw or heard of Bill Gates again, but that meeting had a profound influence on my life. I later visited Freedom Bookshop, then in a back alley near Chelsea football ground. There I acquired cheap books and pamphlets by Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman and Guy Aldred (in those days there wasn’t much else). I read them avidly and have ever since considered myself an anarchist.

During the 1980s I attended several meetings of the “History Workshop” on anarchism. There I came to meet the likes of Geoffrey Ostergaard, Peter Marshall, Caroline Cahm, David Goodway, Nicolas Walter, Carl Levy, Stuart Christie and Laurens Otter. I gleaned much from them.

I have throughout my life been involved in protest movements, whether against inappropriate road schemes, the Vietnam war, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, nuclear weapons, the National Front, the Poll Tax, and neoliberal capitalism in its various guises.

Can you say a bit about what you think was happening through the late 20th century when trends such as anarcho-primitivism grew while ‘red’ anarchism struggled?

The end of the 20th century involved the development and hegemony of global capitalism, and the emergence of neoliberalism as its political ideology. This was accompanied by several other tendencies: a rise of neo-Darwinian theory with its emphasis on human nature as fundamentally selfish; a revival of philosophical individualism as a radical cult (Nietzsche, Stirner); and the emergence of nihilistic postmodernism, a cultural movement and ethos that some have viewed as a radical ideology and an alternative to so-called “modernity,” while others have dismissed it as the latest ideology of neoliberal capitalism.

What troubled me was that many self-proclaimed anarchists embraced these tendencies with uncritical enthusiasm, in the process repudiating the philosophy and politics of early anarchist communities, specifically their metaphysics and their evolutionary socialism. The post-modernist tendency to simply dismiss anarchist communists as advocates of the ideology of capitalist modernity seemed to me quite misleading given that the intellectual trends within modernity – covering around 400 years – are both complex and multifaceted.

In Anarchism is Movement, Spanish writer Tomas Ibanez argues against red anarchists’ tendencies to act as “guardians of the temple,” where fetishisation of historic positions can end up undermining or closing off (class struggle) anarchism from being flexible in the present. Would you say that warning has merit?  

The title of Tomas Ibanez’s book states the obvious. For, like the Buddha and Heraclitus, anarchist communists as dialectical naturalists (materialists) have long recognised that all things in the world are in flux, and continually changing. Anarchism is no different. In fact anarchist communists have always emphasised that anarchism is not some eternal idea emanating from god, but a historical movement and political tradition. Although the post- modernists seem to deny the very idea of a social movement, given their emphasis on the ephemerality, fragmentation and liquidity of modern life.

The recognition that social and political conditions have changed since the 19th century is hardly news to anarchist communists, and hardly an insight unique to post-modern philosophers and post anarchists. Anarchist communism, in fact, has been continually renewing itself throughout its long history, quite independently of anarcho-primitivism (Zerzani), Stirnerite egoism (McQuinn) Nietzschean aristocratic individualism (Hakim Bey) and post anarchism (Newman) – which only became prominent in the last two decades.

Anarchist communists have always been open to new ideas: Bookchin drew on ecological theory; Colin Ward engaged in the then current ideas on community organisation and education; and David Graeber (like me) drew on the insights of anthropology. Anthropologists (along with pragmatic philosophers) were critiquing “essentialist” conceptions of the human subject many decades before the post anarchists arrived on the intellectual scene. Of course, anarchists should be open to new ideas, and to the ideas of other cultures, and alive to their political struggles. This is something I have been writing about for some 40 years.

With respect to Ibanez’s book, unlike him I have always made a clear distinction between the radical Enlightenment and capitalist modernity. But the postmodernist’s rejection of reason, representation (science, knowledge), universalism, the concept of human nature, secularism, and history, by misleadingly and negatively equating these concepts with capitalist modernity seems to me completely obfuscating. Lost on Ibanez, given his dualistic mind-set, is the fact that anything that is “good, beautiful or true” (including reason and human rights) has been appropriated and utilised by capitalism and by the state, to promote and bolster their power, influence or legitimacy.

Modernity is best understood not as a secularised version of Christianity (as the likes of John Gray and Ibanez contend) but as entailing what the Mexican anarchist Flores Magon described as the “dark trinity” of the state, capitalism and religion, a complex that has dominated, exploited, and culturally oppressed people over many centuries. As I note in A Defence of Anarchism Communism, many contemporary nation-states –Turkey under Erdogan, Russia under Putin, Arabia under the Saudis, China under Xi Jinping, India under Narendra Modi etc – exemplify this” dark trinity.” They all combine the advocacy of global capitalism, a highly and repressive and authoritarian form of politics and the support and active promotion by the state of some religious metaphysics. In the above states these relate to Christianity (the Russian Orthodox Church), Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, or some form of Islam (specifically Sufism and Wahhabism). The secularism extolled by the radical Enlightenment cannot be equated with capitalist modernity. The “world” religions, in contrast, have historically been “religions of empire” and ideologies of colonialism, and they have always been an intrinsic part of modernity – not its antithesis as some post anarchists seem to contend.

Murray Bookchin’s acerbic critique of so-called lifestyle (post) anarchism has always been misunderstood. He was not critiquing the likes of Hakim Bey for being libertarians but for rejecting socialism. Likewise, Peter Marshall rebukes me for being “sectarian” in advocating anarchist communism (otherwise known as social anarchism or libertarian socialism) and describes himself as an “anarchist without adjectives”. But of course, this is the very term that Malatesta used to describe anarchist communism in his critique (like Bookchin) of radical individualism, and in affirming that anarchist communism is libertarian – libertarian socialism. Anarchist communism is no more “sectarian” than anarcho-primitivism or the radical individualism of “post left anarchy”.

I do not envisage anarchist communists as “guardians of the temple” as there is no temple to defend, other than the general principles of anarchism that I underlined in my pamphlet. There are of course many different kinds of anarchism, expressing different styles of metaphysics, and different political concerns and strategies. But to divide Western thought, in all its complexity and diversity, dualistically into two ideologies – “modern” and “postmodern” seems to me not only simplistic but quite vacuous.

The closest thing to a recent red mass movement is probably Corbynism. What do you think of it – and its collapse?

The Labour Party, given the nature of its origins, has always expressed an inherent tension between liberal democracy and statist politics and socialism derived from the trade unions. There have always been deep cleavages and conflicts between these two wings.

Under Corbyn the more socialist wing tended to flourish, given Tory austerity measures and general working class discontent. But Labour has never been a radical alternative to capitalism. Its socialism has always been muted, and when in power it has always advocated and upheld Britain as an imperial State.

The demise of Corbynism certainly opens up opportunities to re-affirm anarchist communism, especially as anti-capitalist sentiments are now widely expressed in the media. But one should never underestimate the powers of the modern State, and the degree to which the market has penetrated everyday social life. I have never had much enthusiasm for Labour, or for the Greens’ “New Deal” which continues to support capitalism, and actually endorses giving increasing powers to the modern State, even though we may be able to engage with them on specific issues.

Increasingly, and regrettably, the ecological crisis tends to be discussed in terms of either Leviathan or oblivion, as if there is no alternative.

Where do you think anarchist communism can respond most effectively?

I do not have any pat answers – though I certainly hold that a better order of social life is both possible and necessary in the current crisis. Contemporary anarchists surely must engage and be active on three fronts.

Anarchists should endeavour to keep alive the “spirit” of anarchism, a vision of a world free of capitalist exploitation, State oppression, and all forms of what the anthropologist Christopher Boehm called “hierarchical dominance,” propagating the notion that there is no viable alternative to capitalism and the State. Anarchists must be continually engaged in critiquing capitalist modernity.

Anarchism as a libertarian vision should be employed as an “ethical compass” in marshaling that critique. Anarchists should therefore participate in or support any event, grassroots organisation or community that attempts to defend the well-being and rights of working people against the intrusions of the State and capital. This does not imply, even with regard to the present ecological crisis – as anarchists like Chomsky and Vodovnik have argued – State power and an involvement with parliamentary politics. Insurrection and protests are, of course, intrinsic, and anarchists should freely engage with any enterprise that undermines capitalism and State power.

Finally anarchists should create forms of social life based on mutual aid and voluntary co-operation. Such groups and organisations may be focused on a diversity of different needs and interests, including to defend the environment or for worker’s solidarity, and be based on “prefigurative politics.” The organisations we create in the present must reflect the kind of libertarian socialist society we intend for the future.

It seems to me that anarchist communism is the only alternative, for all other forms of politics have all been tried, and found wanting.

  • Freedom Press will be launching Brian’s latest work, A Defence of Anarchist Communism, at the Anarchist Bookfair in London on Saturday with a 20% discount. For people who can’t make the bookfair pre-launch orders (also discounted) are available at our online shop.

This article first appeared in the Summer-Autumn edition of Freedom journal, available at our online shop for the cost of postage.

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