Anarchism by George Woodcock [Review]

Being in possession of the first United States edition of this book, from 1962, we can easily see just how faithful the author has been to his original text, notes, bibliography and index, adding only a post script of 11 pages in 1973. We shall go on to comment on this great innovation shortly. But first let us have a look at the oh-so-formidable text that has required no amendment since 1962.

One possible explanation for the author’s intellectual stagnation may be found in Woodcock’s political transformation from the anarchist of the 40s to today’s mandarin in Canada. Now, change is one thing, treachery another.

“In reality, the ideal of anarchism, far from democracy carried to its logical end, is much nearer to aristocracy universalised and purified” (Prologue, p.30). “I have brought the history of anarchism to an end in the year 1939. The date is chosen deliberately; it marks the real death in Spain of the anarchist movement which Bakunin founded two generations before.” And: “How right they were (the reformists) — and how wrong the anarchists — in purely material terms, has been shown by the radical change in character of modern capitalism, which has led to a remarkable broadening in the standard of living and the scope of leisure in the Western world, and also the appearance of the welfare state with its insidious dulling of the edge of resentment.” (Epilogue pp.443, 447).

But on the other hand: “And, for the very fact that it is based on qualities and aspirations towards freedom and peace that are fundamental in human nature, the Utopia of anarchism is literally, realisable.” (p.24). “In reality, the existence of a little liberty in this country (England) means nothing … The individual has no rights; ‘Habeas Corpus’ is dead mutton. At present it is convenient and practicable for our bureaucratic rulers to allow us to retain certain of the liberties of capitalist democracy. When events render this position inconvenient for them to maintain, they will not hesitate to make the English state in all its aspects as ruthless as the German.” (Epilogue, p.119). “I do not state that such a social revolution is imminent. But I do contend that there is a general trend in social affairs towards a revolutionary situation, in the maturing of which this war is but an incident. The oppositions of the class struggle are becoming daily more clear, and there is a growing realisation among men of all kinds that the social choice before them is not one between two forms of authoritarian society, such as democracy and fascism, but between authority in any form and the completely free society of anarchy.” (Epilogue, p.121).

Omission of Sources
It is time now, for us to point out that the quotations in favour of anarchism, come from Anarchy or Chaos (Freedom Press, 1944, 124 pp) by … George Woodcock, at that time an anarchist. Woodcock’s evolving along the lines of a growing adaptation to a society which he once believed was corrupt certainly goes a long way to explain his aggressive attitude to anarchism.

Declaring in favour of unconditional pacifism, Woodcock dubs the anarchist terrorists “criminals,” which shows up the absence of a serious approach in his investigation generally; though what he owes to Max Nettlau (the anarchist historian) may be greater than his words indicate on account of the systematic omission of sources.

This blinkered pacifism leads Woodcock to ignore the Italian theoretician Galleani, the Argentine movement as a whole, the social struggles in the United States (the struggles at the turn of the century are utterly ignored) and the roles of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman appear inconsequential. Nor do the many battles in favour of Sacco and Vanzetti and their significance in the context of the United States’ democratic fascism, deserve a mention.

The postscript from July 1973 is like the book, and although, after the book was first published, anarchism was, as far as Woodcock was concerned, nearly dead, it “has emerged again, rejuvenated.” He says he foresaw this possibility in his 1962 book, but in fact, he is surely confusing that with his anarchist book of 1944. For Woodcock, the present situation is due to “a scholarly interest” (p.456) and to a “growing political faith among young people and especially among intellectuals and students.” (p.457). So, “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.” (p.462) and Woodcock tells us that where anarchism is firmly rooted in the people is in India with the movements of Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. An odd way of looking at things!

Autonomous Struggles
First, scholarly interest, not only in anarchism but also in socialism and in the marxist movement, dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, and the reason is readily understandable: it is the duty of the university to supply the State with the cultural and philosophical justification for smashing or corrupting anti-exploitation theories. In Italy, Lombroso discovered that all anarchists have a congenital, wicked tendency towards crime; in France, Victor Basch saw them as religious persons without a god. Lenin takes more or less the same line when he — and with him, all authoritarian marxists — makes a distinction between the lumpen, scum anarchists and the wise, intelligent anarchists, who are unconscious marxists.

Second, to reduce the new libertarianism to the student or intellectual world is stupid. Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, France that same year, and China in April 1976 (see the paper Minus 7) are clear indications that all workers — whether their work be physical, manual or intellectual — feel fed up with hierarchy, and the permanence of the same rulers. If anarchism were only a fad, a moral posture for intellectuals, why are millions of people pursuing its goals? To take a clear-cut example — I am not familiar with the situation in India, but I cannot see anarchism where Woodcock locates it — the autonomous struggles in Italy, the rebirth of the CNT in Spain, the numerous groups in many countries, and, above all, the great wave of anti-dogmatism, opposition to caste and decision-making from above, that is rising in Eastern Europe and China, and on a lesser scale in Western Europe, are proving that the Woodcock of 1944 was right.

Frank Mintz

From: Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review #4 (1978).