George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, 1962, Postscript 1975.


Anarchism was written in 1960 and 1961, and published in 1962. I chose as a terminal date for the book the year 1939, when the Spanish Civil War came to an end and the most impressive of all the historic anarchist movements was destroyed. Then, it seemed an appropriate point in time at which to end such a survey, for between 1939 and 1961 anarchism had not played a very dramatic role in the affairs of any country. But in the decade since then the ideas of anarchism have emerged again, rejuvenated, to stimulate the young in age and spirit and to disturb the establishments of the right and the left.

Such a development I did not dismiss as a possibility when I wrote my book, which I have now chosen to leave unchanged except for this postscript on recent developments. I made clear then my view that the actual anarchist movement which stemmed from the organizational and inspirational activities of Michael Bakunin in the 1860s had ceased to have any real relevance in the modern world, and I continued: 'Nor is there any reasonable likelihood of a renaissance of anarchism as we have known it since the foundation of the First International in 1864.' Here I was discussing anarchism as a structured movement existing in a specific historic period -- a movement which, like the political parties it claimed to reject, had developed its own orthodoxies of thought, its own rigidities of action, a movement that became divided into sects as sharply opposed as those that parted early Christianity.

What we have seen in the last decade on an almost worldwide scale has not been the revival of this historic anarchist movement, with its martyrology and its passwords all complete; that survives indeed as a kind of fossil faith preserved mainly by Italian grocers and vine-growers in the United States, by marble workers in Carrara, and by Spanish refugees, ageing and dwindling rapidly, in Mexico and Languedoc. The significant contemporary phenomenon has been something quite different, an autonomous revival of the anarchist idea, whose [453] extraordinary power of spontaneous renewal, as I remarked in the Prologue to the original edition of this book, is due to its lack of any fixed forms of dogma, to its variability, and hence to its adaptability.

Because anarchism is in its essence an anti-dogmatic and unstructured cluster of related attitudes, which does not depend for its existence on any enduring organization, it can flourish when circumstances are favourable and then, like a desert plant, lie dormant for seasons and even for years, waiting for the rains that will make it burgeon. Unlike an ordinary political faith, in which the church-party becomes the vehicle of the dogma, it does not need a movement to carry it forward; many of its important teachers have been solitary men, dedicated individuals like Godwin and Stirner and even Proudhon, who refused to countenance the suggestion that he had invented a 'system' or that a party might be built up around his teachings. And what has happened during the revival of anarchism in recent years is an explosion of ideas which has carried the essential libertarian doctrines, and the methods associated with them, far beyond the remnants of the old anarchist organizations, creating new types of movements, new modes of radical action, but reproducing with a surprising degree of faith -- even among young people who hardly know what the word anarchism means -- the essential ideas on the desirable reshaping of society that have been taught by the seminal thinkers of the libertarian tradition from Winstanley in the seventeenth century down to writers like Herbert Read and Paul Goodman in our own time.

The interlude between 1939 and the early 1960s can be briefly described, though it cannot be dismissed, since during this nadir of anarchism there emerged certain tendencies that have become even more marked in the neo-anarchism of the years since 1960.

The outbreak of World War II, following the victory of General Franco in Spain, completed the breakdown of anarchism as an international movement, a process that had begun in 1917. By the time the German army had completed its conquests in Europe, the only anarchists at large and active were in Britain, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, and the [454] more liberal of the Latin American states. The countries that had produced the great historic movements -- France and Spain, Russia and Italy -- were all living under totalitarian regimes which made overt activity impossible; moreover, such was the stagnation into which discouragement had driven European anarchists after the surrender of Barcelona that they played little part in the resistance movement to the German occupation between 1939 and 1945.

The dormancy of the movement extended even to the Spaniards, who in the 1930s had seemed the great hope of a successful libertarian revolution. After 1939 a few groups of FAI militants maintained a brief guerilla struggle in the mountains of Andalusia; a few raids were made across the Pyrenees from France, but these were of little consequence, and Spanish anarchism shrank to a movement of refugees encysted in memories of the past. Even recently, with growing unrest in Spain itself, there is little evidence that the refugee anarchists -- or anarchists within the country -- have wielded any significant influence on the emergent resistance movement.

During World War II, rather unexpectedly, it was in the English-speaking countries that anarchism demonstrated the greatest vitality in the sense of interpreting the tradition in new ways; the most creative insights, however, came from libertarian writers outside the organized movement, and to a great extent, in the 1940s, the literary worlds of London, New York and San Francisco repeated what had happened in Paris during the 1890s. Britain became for a period the real centre of seminal anarchist thought. Kropotkin's old paper, Freedom, was revived, and the present writer, who was one of its editors, also founded a literary review, Now, to which many British, American and refugee French and Belgian writers sympathetic to anarchism contributed. A strong link was established between the remnants of the old surrealist movement, led by Andre Breton, and anarchist intellectuals in both Britain and the United States. In the United States anarchism was represented not only by long-established and traditionally oriented propaganda sheets in Italian, Spanish and Yiddish, but also by semi-literary periodicals like Retort, Why and, most important, Politics, whose editor, Dwight Macdonald, then regarded himself [455] as an anarchist. Anarchism became the dominant faith of some of the schools of younger English-language poets in the 1940s, like the New Apocalyptics and the New Romantics in Britain and the pre-beat movement in San Francisco; in such circles a few writers, particularly devoted to anarchism, became key figures -- Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and George Woodcock in Britain; Kenneth Rexroth, Paul Goodman and Robert Duncan in the United States; Denise Levertov first in Britain and then in America.

In two important directions anarchist perspectives were widened during the 1940s. Ever since Kropotkin, libertarian theoreticians have attempted to relate their doctrines to the current sciences of man, and towards the middle of the twentieth century the place biology had held in the speculations of the author of Mutual Aid was assumed by psychology. Alex Comfort wrote on the psychology of power (Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, 1950), and Herbert Read applied the insights of Freud, Jung and Adler to aesthetic and political criticism; the teachings of Erich Fromm (particularly The Fear of Freedom) and of Wilhelm Reich (especially as applied to libertarian problems in the essays of Marie Louise Berneri) were notably appealing to the anarchist intellectuals of the time. The other new departure was an intensified recognition of the need for a new type of education so that men could endure and accept freedom, and in this respect Herbert Read's Education through Art and The Education of Free Men not only had a deep and wide effect on teaching methods in the schools of many countries, but also offered anarchists a new revolutionary technique; through the transformation of the schools by substituting the education of the senses for the education of the mind, Read taught, the kind of peaceful transformation of society of which anarchists had long dreamed might yet be attained.

The end of World War II brought about a modest revival of the anarchist movement along traditional lines in almost all countries except those dominated by the Communists and the surviving right-wing dictators, especially Spain and Portugal, but it was largely a reunion of veterans. The first international congress for many years was held at Berne in 1946 to mark the [456] seventieth anniversary of Bakunin's death; except for two delegates from France who had crossed the frontier illegally and the present writer who had travelled from England, it was attended entirely by representatives of the three Swiss language regions, and by Italians, Germans, Poles and French who represented nobody but themselves since they had spent the war as refugees in Switzerland. The congress was a gesture without a consequence, since no organization emerged from it. Later congresses, in Paris, Carrara, and elsewhere, have also failed to produce a significant international cooperation among anarchists, and though national federations re-emerged in France, Britain, Italy and elsewhere, they did not re-assume the importance their predecessors acquired before the Russian Revolution.

Yet the upsurge of the anarchist idea has certainly taken place, and mainly outside the groups and federations that carry the tradition which stems from Bakunin and Malatesta. The crucial decade was the 1960s. The 1950s, the decade of cautious careerist youth, had been a period of hibernation for anarchist ideas. Anarchism perhaps contributed a little to the eclectic philosophy of the beat poets and novelists, but not until the end of the decade did a renewed interest in the doctrine as a whole begin to emerge. The idea seemed suddenly to be in the air again, and it developed in two different ways.

First, there was a scholarly interest. Classic anarchism had receded far enough into the past to make it material for historians, and from the middle of the 1950s, in France, Britain, the United States, biographies of the great anarchist teachers began to appear, and also the first objective histories of the movement -- the earliest of them the uncompleted Histoire de l'Anarchie by Alain Sergent and Claude Harmel in 1949, then Jean Maitron's definitive Histoire du mouvement anarchiste en France in 1955, the first edition of the present book in 1962, and James Joll's The Anarchists in 1964, followed by Daniel Guerin's biased and restrictive but lively account, L'Anarchisme, in 1965.

Parallel with this activity among scholars, which in the past two decades has produced the kind of serious writing about anarchist ideas and events that had been rare in the past, [457] anarchism itself re-emerged -- in diluted as well as in neat forms -- as a rapidly growing political faith among young people, and especially among intellectuals and students, in many European and American countries.

Like the New Left in its wider applications, the movement which one might call neo-anarchism really had double roots; it sprang partly from the experience of those who became involved in the civil rights campaigns in the United States as early as the mid-fifties, and partly from the great protests against nuclear armament in Britain during the early 1960s. Some of the anarchist intellectuals and activists of the 1940s, like Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Laurie Hislam, provided links between classic anarchism and the young people who flocked behind the banners of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and its more militant offshoot, the Committee of One Hundred. Within the Committee of One Hundred, as always happens when militant pacifism confronts a government irremediably set on warlike preparations, there was a spontaneous surge of anti-state feeling -- i.e. anarchist feeling still unnamed -- and of arguments for the direct action methods favoured by the anarchists. As a result, small groups of young people began to spring up all over Britain, without much consciousness of the traditions of the historic anarchist movement, and to ally themselves with its veterans who were still running Freedom.

The anarchists -- in the new sense as well as the old -- became a vocal and active element in British political life, few in comparison with the larger political parties, but more numerous and more influential than they ever were in the England of the past. Their activities have ranged from the terrorist bombings of the Angry Brigade (which with characteristic British restraint have not yet resulted in a single mortality) to the foundation by Colin Ward of a monthly review, Anarchy, which for a decade was superior to any journal that anarchists had published since the libertarian literary magazines of Paris during the 1890s. Through Anarchy, more flexible and mature in its approaches than any of the American literature of new radicalism, the British neo-anarchists developed ramifying links in the universities, acquired a new generation of sympathetic writers, such [458] as Alan Sillitoe, Colin Maclnnes and Maurice Cranston, and even established connexions with the professions, especially architecture and town planning, where the old anarchist ideas of decentralism and of harmonizing rural and urban living made a great appeal. Where young British rebels in the 1930s joined the Communists, in the 1960s they were likely to become anarchists. Mark the change; becoming rather than joining: a change of heart rather than a party ticket.

Undoubtedly one of the factors that made anarchism popular among the young -- and not merely among students -- was its opposition to the increasingly technological cultures of Western Europe, North America, Japan and Russia. In this context one is inclined to forget -- because the orthodox anarchists never accepted him -- that the principal mediating figure was Aldous Huxley, whose experimentation with psychedelic drugs, his pacifism and his early recognition of the perils of population explosion, of ecological destruction and psychological manipulation, all combined in a vision that anticipated many elements of the 'counter culture' of the 1960s and early 1970s. In Brave New World during the 1930s Huxley had already presented the first warning vision of the kind of mindless, materialistic existence a society dominated by technological centralization might produce. In his 'Foreword' to the 1946 edition of that novel, Huxley concluded that only by radical decentralization and simplification in economic terms, and by a politics that was 'Kropotkinesque and cooperative', could the perils implicit in modern social trends be avoided. In later writings like Ends and Means, Brave New World Revisited and his novel, After Many a Summer, Huxley explicitly accepted the validity of the anarchist critique of the existing society, and his last novel, Island, was the nearest any writer approached to an anarchist Utopia since William Morris wrote News from Nowhere.

At times, and particularly in the United States, the broadening appeal of libertarian ideas has also led to their adulteration, so that anarchism often appears as only one element in what can be described as a climate of rebellion, an insurrectionary frame of mind, rather than a new revolutionary ideology. One finds it mingled with strains of Leninism and early Marxism, [459] with traces of the unorthodox psychology not only of Reich but also of R. D. Laing, with memories of the communitarian movement of the American frontier days, and often with large ingredients of mysticism, neo-Buddhism and Tolstoyan Christianity. This refusal to accept a definite theoretical line, expressed in a widespread antagonism towards structured thinking and in a tendency to reject not only historicism but also history, meant that none of the leaders cf such American student rebellions as those of Columbia and Berkeley, or of the German student risings, or of the militants among the Zengakuren in Japan, can in any complete sense be called anarchist, yet most of them had clearly read Bakunin as well as Marx and Che Guevara; in the rank and file of such movements there has been a spectrum of intellectual involvement that ranged from the rare convinced and knowledgeable anarchist to the many temporary adherents whose motivations were anarchic rather than anarchist, bred of frustration rather than of thought. It is significant that none of these movements produced a single theoretical work in the field of anarchist thought that is comparable to those produced in earlier periods by Proudhon, Kropotkin or even Herbert Read.

Such movements cannot in fact be called anarchist, since they do not fulfil the criteria we have already seen are necessary; those of presenting a consistent libertarian criticism of society as it is, a counter-vision of a possible just society, and a means to advance from one to the other. At the same time, in all these movements, which reject the old parties of the Left as strongly as the existing political structure, the appeal of anarchism was strong and comprehensible. Even in mood, in its insistence on spontaneity, on theoretical flexibility, on simplicity of life, on love and anger as complementary and necessary components in social as in individual action, anarchism appeals to those who reject the impersonality of massive institutions and the pragmatic calculations of political parties. In terms of social organization, the anarchist rejection of the state, and the insistence on decentralism and grassroots responsibilities, have found a strong echo in a contemporary movement which demands that its democracy be not representative but participatory and that its action be direct. The recurrence of the theme [460] of workers' control of industry in so many manifestoes of contemporary radicalism shows an enduring influence of the ideas that Proudhon passed on to the anarcho-syndicalists. In the Paris insurrection of 1968, over which the leaders of the French Anarchist Federation admitted that they had no influence as an organization, this tradition surged impressively out of the past when the workers not merely went on strike, but occupied their factories; in France, despite so long and so stifling a control of trade unions by the Communist apparat, the memories of the past when the anarchists led them as fighting organizations are not very deeply buried, and the French working class militant is still for the most part inspired -- whatever his party affiliation -- by a belief in the worker's competence to control his own affairs that derives far less from anything Marx ever wrote than from Proudhon's De la capacite politique des classes ouvrieres.

The events of 1968 in France can indeed be regarded as typical of the spontaneous emergence of anarchist ideas and anarchist tactics in a situation where the actors for the most part do not regard themselves as anarchists and have little knowledge of anarchist history or of the classic libertarian writings. The ageing intellectuals who publicly represented anarchism in France played no part in inspiring the event. Certain dissident student groups of anarchists were active, and there were anarchist elements among the Situationists and the leaders of the March 22 movement. Nevertheless, it was not always easy to determine how far ideas on workers' councils, for example, derived from German Left Communist theories, which certainly influenced the Situationists, and how far from surviving anarcho-syndicalist traditions.

The spectacle of the black flag of anarchism flying beside the red flag of socialism over the Sorbonne and the Bourse was in fact truly symbolic of the eclectic attitude towards revolutionary doctrines that inspired most of the student and worker rebels outside the sectarian groupuscules of Maoists and Trotskyists, which were almost completely out of touch with the spirit of the movement. Hence there were some confusing moments, particularly when the demagogues of the hour, seizing on the romantic appeal of the past, presented themselves, [461] as Daniel Cohn-Bendit did, as heirs of Bakunin. Cohn-Bendit betrayed the hollowness of his anarchist pretensions when he declared, at the height of the Paris troubles: 'We demand freedom of expression inside the faculty, but we refuse it to the pro-Americans.' In other words, liberty for some, but for others a refusal of freedom.

It was among the uncelebrated rank and file of the movement of May 1968 that the anarchist spirit often appeared in its purest forms, and one remembers especially one anonymous poster as an expression of all that was good and idealistic in the youth movements of the 1960s. 'The society of alienation must disappear from history. We are inventing a new and original world. Imagination is seizing power!' Note the wording. Not men seizing power, or parties seizing power, or even students seizing power, but imagination! This, surely, is the only seizing of power that could take place without corruption!

The very word imagination leads one to what has perhaps been the most remarkable manifestation of resurgent anarchism in recent years -- that associated with the Provos and the Kabouters in Holland. The Provos were frankly anarchist, acknowledging their heritage from the Dutch pacifist anarchist leaders of the past, Domela Nieuwenhuis and Bart de Ligt. Their name -- Provos -- was a contraction of provocation, and it was precisely by provocation in the form of noisy demonstrations, eccentric happenings, original forms of mutual aid, and even riots, that they set out to stir the people from a complacent acceptance of the welfare state. What they were doing was to give the doctrines and practice of rebellion a new twist so that the despair of ever attaining the libertarian paradise -- which gnaws secretly at every anarchist -- became in its own way a weapon to be used in goading governments to show their true faces. The weak provoke; the strong unwillingly expend themselves.

The Provo movement disbanded itself in 1967; the Kabouters (or Goblins) appeared early in 1970, with a constructive intent of changing society from within without waiting for the revolution to be transformed from myth into actuality, and they captured the imagination of the people of Amsterdam so [462] far that by the municipal elections of June, 1970, they were able to elect 5 delegates in a 45-member city council. One of the striking aspects of contemporary neo-anarchism -- and even of traditional anarchism in so far as the old movement has expanded (which it has certainly done in Britain) as a result of current trends -- is that it has become, like so many modern protest movements, a trend of the young and especially of the middle-class young. This tendency was evident even at the beginning of the 1960s. In 1962 the British anarchist journal, Freedom, carried out an interesting survey of the occupations of its readers. Only 15 per cent of them, it turned out, belonged to the traditional groupings of workers and peasants; of the 85 per cent of 'white-collar' workers the largest group consisted of teachers and students, and there were also many architects and doctors, as well as people employed in the arts, sciences and journalism. Even more significant was the class shift among the young: 45 per cent of the readers over 60 were manual workers, as against 23 per cent of those in their thirties and 10 per cent of those in their twenties. Very similar proportions would be found in anarchist and near-anarchist movements in most western countries. The new libertarianism is essentially a revolt -- not of the under-privileged -- but of the privileged who have seen the futility of affluence as a goal; it is strongly reminiscent of the movement of guilty noblemen in Russia during the ninteenth century.

Perhaps, indeed, the only region in the world where a neo-anarchist movement still exists among the under-privileged is India. Gandhi on many occasions declared himself an anarchist -- of his own kind -- and he created, partly from his readings of Tolstoy and Kropotkin and partly on the basis of Indian communitarian traditions, the plan of a decentralized society based on autonomous village communes. Because Gandhi's associates in Congress had too much love for power, his village India did not come into being, but one of the most important contemporary anarchistic movements is sardovaya, the movement led by Vinova Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, which sought to make Gandhi's dream a reality by means of gramdan -- community ownership of land. By 1969, 140,000 villages -- a fifth of the villages of India -- had declared themselves in favour [463] of gramdan, and while this still represents unrealized gestures more than it does concrete achievement, it does represent perhaps the most extensive commitment to basic anarchist ideas in the contemporary world.

While we can doubtless look to some wide changes in the shapes of social relationships as a result of contemporary libertarian movements, and especially to an increase in workers' involvement in decision-making at the place of work and in the development of forms of democracy more direct and more sensitive to modern conditions, it is unlikely that the general outcome will be the wholly non-governmental society of which libertarians now and in the past have dreamed. The value of anarchism is likely to remain primarily in its force as an inspiring idea, an activating vision, whose true importance was stated by Herbert Read, the anarchist poet, when he surveyed his life and its relevance -- and the relevance of anarchism as well -- in the book he completed shortly before his death in 1968, The Cult of Sincerity:

My understanding of the history of culture has convinced me that the ideal society is a point on a receding horizon. We move steadily towards it but can never reach it Nevertheless we must engage with passion in the immediate strife.

Vancouver, July 1973