The nature of nonviolent fascism and the George Woodcock myth

Historical myths can become difficult to controvert. As the “princes in the Tower” story shows, historical fiction – created as pure propaganda – is accepted and embellished. Deliberate falsifiers of history must be nailed. Sectarian propagandist George Woodcock is notorious for writing myths about the anarchist movement with which he was briefly, and disastrously, involved. He needs, for financial reasons, to be accepted by the Establishment, yet has no other qualification to offer but his “academic knowledge” of the anarchists. Catering to intellectual tastes, he has risen from railway clerk to professor. His article in “Anarchy” (last issue) is a casebook in the Woodcock myth. It also serves as a brief introduction into pacifist totalitarianism.

In the article he makes two major and sensational allegations against Anarchists, some living, some recently dead. He has no data to give so, as is normal with him, he gives his own “involvement” as the reason he “knows”, but must perforce make it clear that his involvement was passivist and in no way detrimental to the Establishment. It is a variation of the way some Germans have made a living writing about Hitlerism. (“I knew Hitler intimately. But of course I never agreed with him” - the best of both worlds). In Woodcock’s case all his history is total invention. He says, of major “atrocities” committed by the Spanish Anarchists that “it is established” that they committed them…… but by whom, or what? Even the Spanish courts martials with the sensational, fantastic and inventive allegations made in the post-war period, made no such accusations as he now makes. Nobody was charged in innumerable court-martials with any of the crimes he lists.

Furthermore, he himself, for reasons of radical chic, is prepared to let his name go on the snob-appeal lists of “distinguished sponsors” put out by Spanish refugee organisations. Yet these are the very people one would not touch with a bargepole if the accusations he now makes against them are true, namely that “… many of the Spanish anarchists perpetrated the slaughter of defenceless men who happened to be in their power just because of their social backgrounds, their beliefs or even their sexual predilections (for it is established that Barcelona anarchists at one time rounded up male prostitutes and liquidated them)” which illustrates the “illusory nature of anarchist beliefs” (out of the explanation of which Prof. Woodcock has made a pretty penny).

Rather it illustrates the illusory nature of academic beliefs in Professor Woodcock, for part of this is untrue and the rest impossible. 

While Franco killed thousands because of their “social backgrounds” – the Asturian miners for instance – it is not impossible that some aristocrats were killed because of their connections. But there is not one single name anyone can mention of anyone killed although he sympathised with the republican cause just because he came from the upper or middle classes. Indeed the lie to this is given today by the students, whose parents came from precisely those classes, whose families – because of their social background probably sympathised with Franco, openly in the fascist zone or secretly in the republican zone, but who have become anti-fascists or acratas. To do this, knowing their parents or uncles had been shot only for their social background by the people with whom they now associated, is the sort of impossibility shown in the Princes of the Tower story, whose mother indubitably remained on good terms with their alleged murderer.

The reference to “beliefs” is, one takes it, a reference to the popular attacks on the Catholic Church. Here the fascists did allege “thousands” of priests and nuns killed. “Historians” vary according to their political beliefs. But they are silent on names. Everyone knowing the Spanish Church would know it needed only one priest or nun killed because of his or her belief and for no other reason, to realise that the grave of the person concerned would be a hallowed sanctuary, miracles would be worked at the tomb, the clergy would already be beatifying and preparing for canonisation. But there is not one fascist saint yet. On the contrary, the Church in assembly, by a small majority it is true (yet under Franco) recently apologised to the Spanish people and begged forgiveness for the role it played in the civil war against them. Its role was propaganda for Franco. But had the stories – echoed in Woodcock’s “for their beliefs” been true – what would there be to forgive? 

Or does Woodcock refer to the Communists? Or perhaps the Falange? Some could have been killed “for their beliefs” but we do not really know if this were so.

On the subject of the sexual “predilections” we have the deliberate propagandist lie which shows the nature of Woodcock’s sectarianism. It is an impossible charge, and that Woodcock is consciously lying is shown in the fact that (living in modern Canada and incidentally well acquainted with the late Paul Goodman for one) he poses as ignorant of the difference between “gay” and “hustler” and lets one presume he does not know the difference between “sexual predilections” and “male prostitution” (or that the latter could be heterosexual or homosexual). This from the author of one of the 97 best books on Oscar Wilde!

Assuming that he is referring to homosexuals (with sexual “predilections”) could such a massacre have taken place, with the world press present, and no report appeared anywhere until “it is established” by Woodcock or someone else far from the scene? A few years before, Hitler killed many of his followers in one night, for political deviancy, and to “justify” the action, accused them of homosexuality. There was a thrilled ripple of press and political comment which has not yet subsided. It is precisely the way political journalists and commentators like to titillate their readers. How, in Spain, could a witch hunt for homosexuals have taken place unnoticed? How could the anarchists, above all, have conducted one? There were some with puritanical beliefs but even they had never expressed any hatred of homosexuality (which would have been shouted down with derision at any meeting, as being a Catholic propagandist line). There were some distinguished homosexuals supporting the republican cause from the great Garcia Lorca to the notorious Dr Negrin. There were observers and soldiers from Britain, a large proportion of which were from the Auden-Isherwood gay circles. Were they disgracefully silent? Or is it a lie?

Most of them were members of the Communist Party, ready to invent or repeat lies about Spanish Anarchists, or attribute “atrocities” to them. Yet their silence is even more incomprehensible (if Woodcock is right) than that of three Anarchist women observers all of whom have hitherto been thought of as staunch supporters of homosexual rights. Emma Goldman (a disciple of Walt Whitman, a close friend of Edward Carpenter) was never known to remain silent or to refrain from criticism of her comrades if she thought it merited. She went to Spain and returned as the “ambassador” of the CNT-FAI. Her close collaborator was Ethel Mannin (disciple of Havelock Ellis). Yet another personal observer of the scene, Marie-Louise Berneri (to whom Woodcock has admitted he owes a great deal in his career) went to Spain and made strong criticisms of the manner in which the libertarian movement had yielded to the Communist Party. Her knowledge of the scene was thorough. Her father was actively concerned in the struggle. Nowhere, however, and never did she observe this wanton massacre of gays or of persons “for their beliefs or social origins”.

Not merely were these women criminally silent (something fantastic to those who knew them), or ignorant as compared with Woodcock (who was not present in Spain, or active in any way in any other country), not one of the “gays” had the wit to write to Emma Goldman to ask her to denounce such action in “Solidaridad Obrera” in conformity with her writings in “Mujeres Libres” and elsewhere. Yet in all social upheavals interested groups make every representation they can of this nature. It is an elementary law of preservation.

Perhaps Woodcock means the male prostitutes. Just as in the Russian Revolution when some sensational journalists said “women are to be nationalised” (a send-up of State control), some tried a little sexual titillation in their reports on Spain. Usually it was “nuns raped”. (Unlike the raped nuns of the Congo, those of Spain had no crises of conscience regarding abortion or illegitimate children; the “Reds” proved singularly unfruitful with the “raped nuns” as compared with the Congolese soldiery.) Owing to the CNT, “the prostitutes (female) were joining the union” (giggles), they were “collectivising the brothels” (hysterical laughter and collapse of stout party). No such event happened. It was a send-up of workers’ control. No reference whatever was made to male prostitutes. It would have been a good invented story, but no one thought of it.

Some of the protectors of the prostitutes in the barrio chino were shot down, by the girls themselves, in the middle of July 1936. (It had nothing to do with the anarchists.) There was a revolt of the girls against the Mafia-type ponces, many of whom were Falangists, or denounced as Falangists, and “shot for their beliefs” by the workers militias (not necessarily CNT). Thereafter the prostitutes operated freely. There is no reason why one should suppose the ponces were also male hustlers, but such an incident could have been distorted by the unknown authority on which Woodcock relies. If it exists. For Woodcock had no connection with Spanish Anarchists and indulges only in the game of ripping off other people’s books. He wishes to establish himself as an “anarchist” or “ex-anarchist”, but always a pacifist, to justify himself to the academic world as a source of original material while maintaining his respectability.

This “princes in the tower” fabrication of Woodcock’s casts light on his writings on the anarchist movement in Britain, in his book “Herbert Read: the Stream and the Source”. Every single statement in it regarding the anarchist movement in Britain is inaccurate, half-true or deliberately false. Every word is designed to cast a glow on Woodcock and enhance his alleged intimacy with Herbert Read, the dean of English letters who could advance his career, or to disguise Woodcock’s peculations. What has this to do with “Tolstoyanism”? Perhaps a great deal, as Orwell saw.

In this capacity he can compare the “ruthless,… disciplined… aggressive…” Makhno with his “virtually conscript” levies and its “appalling resonances” (all in the Anarchy article), with the “gentle anarchist” (vide bourgeois press) Herbert Read, with his fundamental pacifist logic. Both commanded their regiments at about the same time, But there was indeed a great difference between them. 

Makhno could not help fighting, but he directed his fighting to the anarchist cause and the peasant revolution. He could have risen to glory under the Tsar, made himself financially secure in the White Army, or been living to this day as a great and honoured General in the Red Army. Or he could have laid down and died (the possibility of appearing for ten minutes before a tribunal to explain he did not wish to fight, a course open-to anyone reasonably fluent in England in the Second World War who could then go back to pursue his career, was not open to him as it was to Prof. Woodcock). He chose to arm the peasants, to fight for freedom, and to battle against impossible odds, in the course of which some mistakes may have happened but in which he managed to keep the banners of freedom flying before two great totalitarian armies pressed in on him. The men around him were illiterate peasants who had to be shown that revolution did not mean looting, and on balance, one may say Makhno not only fought for anarchism, he was the last hope of Russia before it collapsed in tyranny.

Read, at the same time, commanded a highly disciplined regiment, guilty of the most appalling carnage though nobody had any interests at stake, whose men were largely conscripted and used as cannon fodder, blindly led on by deception. Educated officers, such as Read, knew this. They could resign their commissions. Some, like Siegfried Sassoon, stood out against war; others like Russell and Brockway (and a great many others) went into prison rather than enter the Army, to emerge in later years as Labour councillors and even Cabinet Ministers, or plain workers. Read was no Haig or Kitchener – but once one becomes a lieutenant, the only reason one is not a general is lack of chance, not choice: there were many who chose to go into the army up to non-commissioned rank and still opposed government and war. But to take the commission meant to be with the war. Why is Read’s captaincy to be “forgotten”, as it is by those bourgeois critics who write that he was far from being the bloodthirsty anarchist etc. etc. (When he killed hundreds or perhaps thousands, where Emile Henry a handful and they guilty)? His murders were legal. This makes him a “pacifist”.

A false picture is being painted by Woodcock of Read’s role in the anarchist movement, to glorify his own toadying to Read. Read for many years shopped around with the Communist Party, Social Credit and so on, but became attracted to the anarchist idea when the “murderous” Spanish anarchists were “massacring people for their beliefs”. He identified himself with their cause, at – first cautiously – compare Read’s reserved, tactful entry in “Writers Take Sides” (on Spain) with Ethel Mannin’s wholehearted support for the Anarchists. A few months later, as the whole literary establishment became anti-Franco, Read let himself go and supported the Spanish Anarchists and wrote his books on anarchism, some of them brilliant, even attending one or two British anarchist meetings. But he broke decisively with the anarchists in 1939, not because of his “gentle pacifism” but because he supported the war. He began to ‘conceal his anarchism under names like “the new order” “guild socialism” “new democracy” etc. not because of the “violence” of the anarchists but because he was with the Establishment and wholeheartedly for mass warfare. Woodcock, coming along that time on a pacifist ticket, was all things to all men (hiding his pacifism to the anarchists long enough to rip off the press and build up his literary reputation by printing his mag at their expense). 

Orwell saw through Woodcock’s pacifism, and he was very perceptive on the nature of pacifist totalitarianism. (His criticisms of “pacifists and anarchists” are all based on the Woodcock circle, and contrast vividly with his pleased though rare encounters with working class anarchists). Gandhi is, of course, as Orwell saw, no less a totalitarian than Hitler. His pacifism is based on brainwashing, just as is Hitler’s. It is a means of apparently challenging the ruling class, yet the revolutionary appeal it makes deflects the class struggle and leads to authoritarianism. Gandhi is, of course, the supreme non-violent fascist, and his moral dictatorship was even more widespread than Hitler’s – and while on balance one must prefer Gandhi to Hitler, yet if Gandhi had carried out Hitler’s programme he would have succeeded where Hitler had failed. To be dependent on the goodwill of a dictator is part of liberal thinking, but it is the reverse of anarchism. This totalitarianism Orwell saw in Tolstoy (where perhaps it is unconscious).

In fact, this “non-violent fascism” which is implicit in all Woodcock’s thinking (for he knows nothing of anarchism, and his book on it avoids theory and describes history – inaccurately – and then is padded out with his research on Oscar Wilde) runs through a lot of liberal thinking and is sometimes passed off as anarchism. But it has nothing whatever to do with anarchism as a living force, and is invariably accompanied by denials that anarchism is possible. It represents to anarchism what national-socialism represents to socialism – having some of the features, but utilised to the benefit of the ruling class and capable of subservience to dictatorship. This is implicit in Read, who never moved from the Establishment (and whose acceptance of a knighthood was no aberration), and could on the one hand proclaim his “non-violence” as regards the working class revolution yet leave the Committee of 100 because “it was apparently attacking the RAF rather than criticising the Government”. Yet Read is infinitely superior to Woodcock, because he is a real liberal, bound by his financial interests to the Establishment, yet having a warmth of understanding of liberal ideas. While he cannot bring himself to support anarchists in any situations other than those in which they have a seeming legality, for instance the Spanish revolution when of course it was technically the fascists who were in rebellion – or for that matter in the Ukraine when the Makhnowistas were no more illegal than anyone else – yet his contribution to libertarian thought, within that limitation, was of interest though he was no Makhno to reject advancement and live poor. It is a minor interest admittedly, but as a populariser of libertarian educational ideas, he was one of the best in the field. Woodcock, on the other hand, as a mere glorifier of himself, who never fails to criticise Cohn-Bendit as a rival or to appropriate Read for himself, has nothing to say on anarchism. He is a fake within his own academic terms of reference. But he is sincere only in his insistence upon nonviolent fascism.

For pacifism is not to do with the degree of violence one uses. It is an idealisation of the cult of non-violence, which seeks to label revolution “violent” and invariably excuses war and legal massacre, however it may huff and puff on the subject at safe times (e. g. war-time England, or peace-time). It cannot bear dissension. There have been imperialist armies with pacifist bodies such as the Quakers serving in them, and Gandhi recruited for the First World War on the basis that his soldiers would be used in non-combatant regiments, but there could never be a non-violent majority tolerating different action by a minority. If this happens then, as with Freedom’s takeover pacifist fraction, it has to denounce it as “wicked” and range up with the State in denunciations. 

In time of war, pacifism appears to be revolutionary and is linked with radical movements. In times like the present, when revolution is in the air, the pacifist slogans are part and parcel of the cant of the Establishment. “Violence achieves nothing,” write Major-Generals; “A dangerous cult of violence”, proclaim retired Colonels; “The romantic view of violence”, declare military historians. They are as unconscious as judges of hypocrisy.

It is not today the fascist aping the methods of the Bolshevik who is the menace, but the fascist aping anarchism or rather aping hybrid anarcho-pacifism. There is no chance of a Gandhi arising again to establish his military state by use of moral force. But there is every possibility of a popularisation of the views of the Establishment against the working class by means of a fake anarcho-pacifism –  indeed, in the USA an “anarcho-capitalist” Libertarian Party has already appeared! The academic who is out to make a quick buck by his fake researches based on sectarian propaganda becomes dangerous: a Woodcock now, as a Rosenberg once, does the intellectual bulldozing that the authoritarian wants.

Albert Meltzer

Anarchy (Second Series) #11 (1973)

A response to [Nestor Makhno: The Life of an Anarchist, by Victor Peters, Book review]
Responded to by ‘Reply to Albert Meltzer’ and [Nicolas Walter Letter on ‘non-violent fascism’] [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: ]