Our Masters Are Helpless: The Essays of George Barrett edited by Iain McKay [book review]

George Ballard (1888-1917), who wrote under the name George Barrett, was a prolific speaker and writer whose death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine was a severe loss to anarchist thought and propaganda in the United Kingdom. This small but essential book contains the three long essays he is most known for – “The Anarchist Revolution” (Freedom Press: London, 1915), “The Last War” (Workers’ Freedom Group: Bristol, 1915) and “Objections to Anarchism” (Freedom Press: London, 1921). The first and third pamphlet were initially serialized in the anarchist paper “Freedom,” the latter posthumously. The volume also includes all the articles from “Freedom” written by Barrett as well as more organizational reports and summaries Barrett sent to the paper.

The three essays are a pleasure to read. They are aimed at people who are not anarchists and are all the better for that. He writes in a clear and concise way that does not speak down to the reader and he has that rare ability to express ideas that might be thought of as complicated in a clarifying rather than confusing way. At its best his writing style is reminiscent of Alexander Berkman’s “Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism.”  (Vanguard Press: New York, 1929) and his aim appears to be similar – to express the ideas of anarchism in a straightforward way to those who may never have considered them in any way beyond an instinctively negative one. For Barrett, like Berkman, anarchism is common sense. There’s nothing complicated about it. Look around, think about what you see and it becomes obvious that anarchism makes perfect sense. His “Objections to Anarchism” clearly reflects this way of seeing the world and also reflects the fact that Barrett spent considerable time as a public speaker (he appears to have been an effective presence on the soapbox) as well as talking about anarchism with people who were not anarchists and who asked the awkward questions that needed answering. You can see a similar approach in Tony Gibson’s “But Mr. Speaker in an anarchist society, Who Will Do the Dirty Work?” (Freedom Press: London, 1952) and Albert Meltzer’s “Anarchism: Arguments For and Against” (AK Press: Edinburgh and San Francisco, 1996).

Barrett’s articles for “Freedom” between 1910-1913 reflect the optimism that is found in the pamphlets but his writing is, at times, more lyrical and metaphorical. They reflect a knowledge of literature, philosophy and science as well as the importance of atheism to anarchist ideas. His “Night and Morning” (April 1911) is a wonderful piece of writing that is both lyrical and optimistic urging us to recognize that “In some near future more of us will see the beauty of the days we let slip so uselessly”. He is, though, a realist. In “The Curse of Compromise” (October 1913) he argues that “It is doubtful if propaganda ever makes rebels. They are created by wider causes.” All propaganda can do is to try and draw out the spirit of revolt that lies within people. Anarchism won’t be built book by book or article by article. A lot more will be needed.

His reports and letters to “Freedom”, often written while traveling, reflect a different Barrett. In them he is querulous and urgent, chafing at the inability of some comrades to get moving. He senses the time to organize is now and his not above publicly criticizing anarchists in certain cities and towns. To call oneself an anarchist yet do nothing, practically, to help bring anarchism about is not acceptable to him. His final piece in this section “A New Venture” announces the “Voice of Labour Bulletin” and ends with the words “Let us be comrades in our anarchism, for it is the whole of life”. Words, one feels after reading this selection, that he lived by.

The book is ably edited by Iain McKay and comes with a useful introduction (one quibble – the original “Voice of Labour” ran for nine months not six) and there is a helpful glossary of contemporary Socialist and Marxist groupings. “Our Masters Are Helpless” leaves us in no doubt as to the ability of Barrett as a writer and thinker and we can only mourn his early loss to British anarchism. This is essential reading. You might disagree with him at times but his striving to reach those who are not anarchists, using language that is clear and effective, is important and impressive. In a time of apparent madness his assertion that anarchism is common sense remains an important message for us all.

“Our Masters Are Helpless: The Essays of George Barrett” edited by Iain McKay; Freedom Press: London, 2019.  ISBN: 9781904491309, 140 pages, £7.50