Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow: A Review

Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward

By Eric Laursen
George Mason University’s History News Network
July 19, 2012

Eric Laursen is an independent journalist and longtime anarchist activist, writer, and organizer. He is the author of The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan (AK Press, 2012) and co-author of Understanding the Crash (Soft Skull Press, 2010).

On the surface, British history during the postwar decades has been a saga of political and economic centralization. But postwar Britain has also witnessed the long-delayed flowering of a small but very influential anarchist movement. Colin Ward, perhaps the leading British anarchist thinker of the period, wrote in his remarkable 1973 book, Anarchy in Action, that “an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste. . . . Once you begin to look at human society from an anarchist point of view you discover that the alternatives are already there, in the interstices of the dominant power structure. If you want to build a free society, the parts are all at hand.”

Those “seeds”—where they came from, what they blossomed into during the postwar generations—are the subject of Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow, David Goodway’s study of British anarchism, first published in 2006 and now revised, updated, and republished, for the first time in the U.S., by PM Press. This is an important study—the first that drills deeply into Britain’s idiosyncratic progression from hard-to-categorize nineteenth century socialist reformers like William Morris to major anarchist figures like Colin Ward and Stuart Christie. It doesn’t pretend to be a proper history of a political movement. And it doesn’t encompass, for instance, the mutually beneficial relationship between anarchy and punk-rock culture, which was, in a sense, one of the fruits of the progression he discusses.

Goodway, a UK academic, has edited collections of writings by two of his subjects, Alex Comfort and Herbert Read, and was a founder of the Oxford Anarchist Group in the early 1960s (I should also note that he is a friend and that I am thanked in the Preface to the new edition). Organized into discreet chapters on eleven writers who contributed to the development of intellectual anarchism in the UK, his book lays out a persuasive explanation why anarchism developed in the particular direction it did there. In addition, he makes a strong argument for British anarchism as one of the most influential strands in the entire anarchist tradition since the war.

What was different about British anarchism? It was never a mass working-class movement, as it was for a time in continental Europe and the United States. And while the most celebrated continental anarchist thinkers and organizers tended to come from the working class or, sometimes, from the upper classes, like the aristocrats Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta, the writers Goodway identifies as progenitors of contemporary British anarchism had largely middle-class backgrounds. They included some of the most famous British cultural figures of their day, from Oscar Wilde to Aldous Huxley to the novelist John Cowper Powys to the poet and scientist Comfort, author of the bestseller The Joy of Sex.

Not all of them explicitly identified as anarchists—Goodway uses the term “left libertarian” as an umbrella—and because they all had distinguished careers in other areas, teasing out the common threads in their thinking can be difficult. Goodway not only highlights the ideological connections between his writers, but unearths previously little-known personal ties. For example, he examines the correspondence between Powys and Emma Goldman (of which he’s edited a volume), and the friendships and rivalries between George Orwell, an idiosyncratic socialist; Comfort; the poet and anarchist historian George Woodcock; and the art historian and anarcho-pacifist Herbert Read. An astonishing range of major thinkers and writers were also drawn to the politics of the British anarchists at one time or another, including Bertrand Russell, John Middleton Murry, E.P. Thompson, Rudolf Rocker, the American anarchists Dwight Macdonald and Paul Goodman, and Gene Sharp, the guru of nonviolent civil resistance. But the middle class origins of Goodway’s subjects—and, perhaps, the fact that many of them were successful in more conventional ways—had a distinct impact on their anarchism. They tended to be more deeply preoccupied with individual liberty and self-expression than their continental counterparts. British anarchists also stressed the practical over the theoretica—even, at times, over explicit political action. In his 1936 book, Ends and Means, Huxley advocated a radical decentralization of economic and social life into voluntary cooperative communities, which he argued would free the people from government and the corporate structure.

As a result, Goodway considers the author of Brave New World, along with the American urban historian and critic Lewis Mumford, to be a precursor of the “new anarchism” of the postwar era, which likewise concentrated on finding practical anarchist solutions to known problems, in part by locating the conjunction between anarchism and scientific fields like biology, psychology, and alternative technologies.

If one specific wish unites all the very distinctive individuals in Goodway’s book, it’s for the unitary nation to dissolve, allowing regional and local cultures and identities to reassert themselves—something that can’t happen so long as the state still stands over them. Yet British anarchists tended to shy away from explicit class analysis. They also tended to frown on violence and revolution, arguing instead for an evolutionary approach to a classless, non-hierarchical society.

A strong pacifist streak runs through British anarchism, stemming partly from the traumatic experience of the First World War. Comfort, not quite out of his teens, was one of Britain’s most prominent pacifists and conscientious objectors during the Second World War. Afterward, he became a major figure in the UK nuclear disarmament movement, which oriented itself from the start around non-violent, mass direct action and activist self-organizing. As such, it contributed powerfully to the tradition that includes the New Left, the movement against corporate globalization, and the “Occupy” movement that erupted last year on Wall Street and around the world.

It’s not altogether unfair, however, to accuse British anarchism—especially the prewar thinkers who Goodway discusses—of a tendency to evade the need to grapple directly with the state-capitalist power structure. Emma Goldman had noticed this similar in the late 1930s, when she solicited a statement in support of the Spanish anarchist cause from Huxley and he answered her with a refusal, accompanied by a disquisition on the need to decentralize industrial production—right away, presumably. (Goodway’s book also includes a side-splittingly funny account of how the obstreperous Goldman was greeted by typically reserved English audiences when she lived in their country in 1936-37—a classic episode of British-American culture clash.)

The story Goodway tells is of a movement that started with the musings of a succession of highly individualistic British intellectuals who had no “native” anarchist movement to use as a reference point—just what they observed among their country’s rural population and working class. Thanks in large part to Ward, Comfort, the Freedom magazine group, Anarchist Black Cross, and a few other writers and organizers including Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer, British anarchism grew into a coherent body of thought, with the beginnings of a popular following, between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s—about the time the Sex Pistols released Anarchy in the UK, as it happens. Today, it is very much present in Occupy London – an ongoing campaign of nonviolent direct action against a crushing, state-imposed economic damp-down which Comfort would certainly have plunged into, headfirst.

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