Dilettantes [letter]

Dear Comrades,

In the last issue of Freedom (5/2/49), J.H.’s reply to Sean Gannon seems to me very inadequate, and he has given his whole case away when he refers to Sean Gannon’s “stuffed dummies” whom it is so easy to use as “Aunt Sallies”, for, admitting this, does J.H. wish to tell us that such people do not exist? Unfortunately, we know the dilettante type on the fringe of the revolutionary movement only too well, and it is a very real danger for anarchism that this sort of would-be artistic Bohemian fringe might be thought of as anarchist. The only reason such people would wish to declare themselves anarchist is that it happens to be what they would call “the most extreme” philosophy of the moment; it does not call on them to undertake anything as the old love, Stalinism, did during the war, and I think there is a danger that some anarcho-pacifist-surrealist cult might arise, having about as much connection with anarchism as the Freemasons have with building.

If Sean Gannon had imagined such people, unfortunately, he hasn’t – it might be an accurate deduction for J.H. to say that it was implied that the true revolutionist was impatient of all theories. That is an absurd conclusion. You might as well say that anybody who made persistent fun of the Lord’s Day Observance Society and the local Watch Committee was a confirmed drunkard and libertine. What conclusion I at any rate would draw from such remarks as Gannon’s, is that revolutionary theory in the hands of a middle-class dilettante is only a toy. At least, from an anarchist point of view! The Leninist, who believes in the “vanguard” political party, needs the middle-class theorists, the Lenins and Trotskys, but what place has anarchism for them in the revolutionary idea, holding as it does that the working-class can only emancipate itself, and needs no leaders? Can the would-be followers of nineteenth-century Paris art-life, if not Lao Tsu, be included in a social revolution? How?

What this comes down to is a question of class; the middle-class cannot organise itself for the social revolution. I have no doubt J.H. will retort by pointing to the revolutionists of the past, Kropotkin, Bakunin and so on, who came from the upper classes, but I believe the situation is completely different to-day. In pre-revolution Russia, the students “went to the people”, threw overboard their conventions and took part in the struggle. In many colonial countries this is the case to-day. But so far as we are concerned here, to-day, that is not likely to arise. The conscience of the student class has been sadly deadened; the contradiction with the Gospels they once believed in showed them that their world was wrong by their own moral standards; but the Freudian Gospel affords them plenty of excuses! Only the very few will make a break to-day, and those few are the really conscientious and not those who seek to remain in the upper classes but by purely literary affectations of philosophy, wish to show that they do not belong there but to a class of “intellectuals” which they have invented themselves. When one comes across people who retain their class snobbery by claiming that there is a difference between “workers” and “intellectuals” or “workers by hand” and “workers by brain”, those you may be sure are not revolutionaries but dilettantes.

I cannot find anywhere in Gannon’s letter where he says anything about the “man of action”, this is only the “intellectual” in a different dress so far as modern conditions are concerned; the struggle to-day is for workers’ direct control and through their own action, and the adventurer to-day – physical and mental – has little to offer the revolutionary movement. I am not unmindful of the contribution made by the advanced liberals –  libertarians, if you will – such as J.H. refers to; I will only say that all such ideas, whether of advanced education or anything else, can only remain in the air so long as they are in the possession of a few. The free school at fifty guineas a term is not anarchism. The patient efforts for fifty years of working-class youths to teach themselves at institutes, libraries and evening-classes, all that was available, is much nearer to its spirit. This wasn’t invented by A. S. Neill.

J.H. must learn an anarchist fundamental which is that he is directly wrong when he states “the French revolution drew on the intellectual fruits of half-a-century”. What really happened was that the intellectual fruits of the succeeding half-a-century drew on the French Revolution. Libertarian ideas do not come from a few students and trickle down to the masses: philosophy draws on them. I see even J.H. quotes the Spanish Revolution in defence of his position!


Freedom 1949-02-19

[Uploaded as supporting material for ‘Slaughter or slander? Notes on the Albert Meltzer-George Woodcock conflict’ in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No.107-108, December 2022: https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/cjt075 ]