A Reply to Albert Meltzer

I have long been aware that Albert Meltzer disapproved of whatever I have written about anarchism; indeed, I have accepted the fact as an inevitable consequence of our differing viewpoints. Yet when I read his scurrilous article on me in a recent issue of ANARCHY I could not help feeling like Bakunin who, when a long-expected attack by Marx had been delivered, remarked to Herzen: “At last the sword of Damocles has fallen – and it has turned out to be a pile of garbage!” 

I will come round at the end to the ritual accusation of “neo-fascism” which Meltzer brings against me in the peroration of his tirade. He bases his main attack (a) on the allegation that I utter certain falsehoods regarding anarchist history, and (b) that I have climbed to whatever scanty eminence and prosperity I may hold by exploiting my knowledge of anarchism. In fact, he really brings out only one specific accusation of falsehood, relating to my statements in ANARCHISM regarding the killing of pimps and homosexuals by Barcelona anarchists. The remaining accusations are entirely untrue, but I suppose they are interesting as examples of the kind of smear and argumentum ad hominem by which instead of trying to answer what a man says one presents him as what he is not. 

Let us begin with Meltzer’s statements against me personally. He begins by revealing a strange class bias when he remarks that I have risen “from a railway clerk to a professor” – as if professorships must be reserved for a special elite! Here, in any case, he is much out of date, since I taught in universities for a mere nine years, abandoned teaching in 1963, and since then have been not the “Professor Woodcock” to whom Albert refers, but a mere writer and editor earning probably about the same income as a London bookseller. Meltzer goes on to suggest that I was “accepted by the Establishment” (which is news to me), with “no other qualification to offer but his ‘academic knowledge’ of anarchism”. In fact, anarchism never entered whatever academic career I pursued. I taught English because I am a poet and a critic, and I taught Asian Studies because I have lived and travelled long in Asia; I never taught a single class in any university relating to anarchism. My long-terminated “academic career” had no relation to my present political views or my political past.

Meltzer goes on to remark that out of the explanation of anarchism I have made “a pretty penny”. He presents no evidence to support the statement, because he has none. Has he been given access to my publishers’ accounts? To my own bank book? Is he in fact an anarchist Watergater? Obviously not, and in fact he talks out of total ignorance, unaware even that of the forty books I have published only six have in any way been connected with anarchism.

Next we come to other equally strange accusations. Meltzer states that Orwell’s criticisms of “pacifists and anarchists” were “all based on the Woodcock circle”. I am not quite sure whom Meltzer means by “the Woodcock circle”, since at the time Orwell made the PARTISAN REVIEW attacks of which Albert is presumably thinking, my closest associates were fact Marie Louise Berneri, Vernon Richards, John Hewetson, Ken Hawkes and Tom Brown. In any case, so far as Orwell’s views of me are concerned, Meltzer and his readers do not have to accept my word. They have merely to look of Volume IV of THE COLLECTED ESSAYS, JOURNALISM AND LETTERS OF GEORGE ORWELL, in which they will see that the PARTISAN REVIEW dispute was followed by a long series of letters from Orwell to me couched in the terms of friendship. These show that Orwell did not long continue to regard me as politically unacceptable, and, indeed, we worked together on the Freedom Defence Committee, not long before his death. 

There is a particularly malicious accusation in Meltzer’s article, when he represents me as “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”. I never hid my pacifism from anyone, because it was through pacifism that I had become an anarchist; I stated my viewpoint quite publicly in FREEDOM, which in one issue contains a statement in which I dissociate myself from the non-pacifism of the other editors. I believed – as I still believe – that anarchism must be pacifist because the supreme act of domination over another man is to kill him. 

Apart from the question of pacifism, I assume Meltzer by “his mag” means NOW. Since Vernon Richards has made a similar accusation, it seems time to settle the matter. A total of 16 issues of NOW were published. The first series of 7 were published by me personally before I became associated with Freedom Press. The eighth, No. 1 of a new series, was published by Freedom Press with me as editor. This was the only number that the Press published at its expense, and, since it sold out, a profit was actually made. There was disagreement in the Editorial Board of the Press, initiated by Tom Brown, over the content of that issue, and it was agreed that further numbers should be published by me, and merely distributed by Freedom Press, with me taking both the editorial and financial responsibility; this arrangement is clearly shown on the contents pages of all issues after No. 1, since my name appears as publisher. Issues 2 to 5 paid their way, since it was the wartime period and books were in short supply; the last four issues lost money steadily, and I paid the deficit, assisted by a few friends among whom was George Orwell; Orwell Liked NOW well enough to contribute to it one of his best essays, “How the Poor Die”. 

There are a number of lesser falsehoods in Meltzer’s article, but I think I have shown his lack of credibility sufficiently well to ignore them and proceed to his real complaint. Curiously enough, though he begins by attacking me for my remarks on Makhno, he does not pursue that line very energetically, obviously because – since I was quoting the evidence of people who were in the Ukraine at the time of Makhno’s activities and who were neither Communists nor Tsarists – he has not much ground to stand on. What intrigues him, and leads him into the fascinated speculations which innate puritans devote to such matters, is my statement in ANARCHISM regarding certain “executions” of imprisoned [?] prostitutes by self-styled anarchists in Barcelona early in the Civil War. I made it clear – though Meltzer seeks to obscure this by some neat pedantic footwork about the difference between “gays” and “hustlers” and by a sly dig at my acquaintance with Paul Goodman – that the acts were not committed by “the ordinary working class men of the C.N.T. or even by the more responsible F.A.I. militants”, but by “professional pistoleros” working with the anarchists and by a few “fanatics”. In other words, I never suggested that these acts were committed by the movement as an act of policy. But I based my statement that they did take place on the evidence of a reputable anarchist who was in Barcelona as representative of the French movement and who was troubled by what happened and by the way the propagandists of the movement covered it up. He was André Prudhommeaux, who wrote as André Prunier; Prudhommeaux told me this in Berne in 1946, and later in Versailles in the presence of the Spanish artist Lobo in 1950; he subsequently published the statement, but most anarchists in England at the time were as anxious as the representatives of any other political movement to keep silence over embarrassing facts. As for Meltzer’s arguments that neither Marie Louise Berneri nor Emma Goldman mentioned such events, (a) they did not visit Spain until after the events had taken place, and (b) as anyone who has been anywhere in the world in a complex crisis situation (like that of Spain in mid-1936) will know, it is impossible for any single person to know everything that is going on in every corner of the stage. So their failure to speak proves nothing either way. What is certain is that Prudhommeaux’s statements were not welcome in Red Lion Street, and Meltzer is continuing the old whitewash.

Of course, if you whitewash the past, you have to smear those who see it differently in order to show up the contrast. I remember where that old accusation of “neo-fascism” – or “objective fascism” as it was also called – originated. It was first applied by the Stalinists to smear the Trotskyists, and later was applied to the POUMists and the Spanish anarchists. Of course, was never more than a term of abuse with no objective basis in fact. 

Fascism is a very specific and circumscribed political phenomenon. It is a cult of leader-worship (the Fuhrer-prinzip) built around a mass movement with a pseudo-radical ideology and a technique based on terror. Marxists have claimed that Bakunin, one of Meltzer’s heroes, was a proto-fascist; they said the same about Proudhon, and if they knew about Meltzer they would say the same about him. Of course, we all know the Marxists are talking rot, and so is Meltzer. He cannot answer my assessment of outdated historic anarchism – an assessment that is also a call to a new anarchism – so he makes his smears with the same zest as Joe Stalin or Joe McCarthy; it’s merely question of the colour of the paint you use. For anarchists to abuse each other is doubtless healthy, but at least let us invent our own vocabulary of political abuse, not borrow from our enemies: 

So I don’t call Meltzer a fascist; he isn’t one. But he is in his own way a censorious, self-righteous bigot, and his eye for the truth is myopic. 

George Woodcock 

Anarchy (Second Series) #14

A response to The Nature of Non-Violent Fascism and the George Woodcock Myth. Responded to by Wooden Horse [Jan/Feb 1975] 
[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 ]