Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow in a Center for a Stateless Society

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

By Kevin Carson
Center for a Stateless Society
February 13, 2012

I’ll start by saying I found this a very engaging read.  I learned a lot of interesting new things about people whose thought I had already encountered, like Morris, Huxley and Orwell, and developed a strong appreciation for those—like Wilde—with whom I was less familiar.

I confess I found the pacifists—precisely those for whom Goodway has the strongest affinity—and the thinkers whose primary influence was in the world of letters, less interesting.  For example, I barely skimmed through the chapters on John Cowper Powys—a damning admission in a reviewer, I know.  But these are reflections more on me than on the inherent value of the subject matter, or of Goodway’s presentation of it.

All this being said, I’m somewhat puzzled by the scope of the book—in particular, as to why it begins in the late Victorian period with William Morris and his contemporaries.

Goodway argues that the “first indigenous anarchist groups” in Britain only dated from the 1880s. But he devotes a major share of the book to figures like Morris, Orwell, and E.P. Thompson, whom he himself categorized as libertarian socialists or libertarian communists: i.e., “meaning that they exhibited some or even many anarchist characteristics without signing up for the whole anarchist programme.”  So at the very least, I think it would have benefited from a long background chapter on the roots of left-libertarian thought in Great Britain, from Paine and Godwin to Thomas Hodgskin. Hodgskin, whose economic analysis closely prefigured in many ways that of the American individualist anarchists, was at least as anarchist-ish as (say) William Morris, who despite a brand of libertarian socialism indistinguishable in practice from Kropotkin’s never abandoned his strenuous denials of being an anarchist.

Goodway tips his hat to the idea that anarchism in Britain had native antecedents, but as a practical matter he treats it as some largely sui generis, encapsulated lump that came to a head like a cyst around 1880. In fact classical anarchism, classical socialism and classical liberalism all shared common—and frequently intertwining—post-Enlightenment roots. Despite his pro forma acknowledgement to the contrary, you’d get the impression that British anarchism sprang from the brow of Zeus.

One omission—G.D.H. Cole—can hardly be blamed on Goodway. PM Press vetoed his proposal to add a chapter on the primary theorist of Guild Socialism to the original 2006 edition.

Having stated these criticisms, I repeat I found the book a pleasure to read overall. Regardless of any quibbles over his choice of scope, my hat is off to Goodway for his masterful handling of an immense volume of primary source materials, and his ability to convert musty archives and University collections of faded letters into a lively narrative.

Now for a few specifics.  I enjoyed Goodway’s presentation of contemporary reactions to William Morris by the anarchist community—most of whom saw News from Nowhere, as I did, as one of the few future utopias one would actually want to live in (Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time comes close to rivaling it, aside from the decanting of babies and the linguistic reengineering; so does LeGuin’s Anarres, aside from the priggishness). Unlike, say, Bellamy’s Looking Backward—in which daily life strikes me as a lot like taking medicine—Morris’s green and pleasant land manages to seem more appealing than Coketown.  Kropotkin, especially, found it attractive—hardly surprising, from another thinker who took the Free Towns of the late Middle Ages as a model for libertarian socialism.

I confess my previous, and rather superficial, take on Oscar Wilde was heavily influenced by his stereotyped image of frivolity and facile wit. But the ideas expressed in his private letters, and in such seminal works as “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” evidence a powerful, focused and mature intellect.  The latter essay is not only only a manifesto of social and cultural freedom, but an incisive critique of the basic principle of authority.

Goodway doesn’t do much to reconcile the conflicted image of Orwell as a libertarian socialist who hated socialists (and most everybody else, one is sometimes tempted to think), but he fleshes it out with a wealth of interesting detail. I’d read little in the way of biographical material on Eric Blair, aside from his first person account in Homage to Catalonia of his experiences fighting in the (vaguely, kinda sorta Trotskyite) POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War.

His direct experience of the Madrid Stalinists consolidating power in 1937, and of a Civil War lost because they saw the anarchists as a worse enemy than Franco, I found especially moving. The Spanish Revolution was betrayed in the same way the Russian Revolution had been betrayed by the Stalinists, with Soviet trainers busily organizing Spain’s own NKVD and the Communist Party packing the prisons to overflowing with dissidents; the war was lost in no small part because the Madrid regime systematically deprived the CNT and other libertarian socialist militias of ammunition and victuals.  No small portion of Orwell’s personal disgust came out later in his respective portrayals of the ordinary animals and the Pigs of Animal Farm.

I was already vaguely aware of Huxley’s anarchistic sensibilities, from his quip in an afterword to Brave New World on a third alternative whose “economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque and co-operative.” Thanks to Goodway, I now know a lot more about that aspect of his thought.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on E.P. Thompson, with whom I was familiar mainly as the Marxist scholar who wrote the monumental The Making of the English Working Class and the essay “Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism.” I’d repeatedly seen Thompson dismissed by right-wingers as a crude Stalinist.  Not only was not that the case—he left the CPGB over Khrushchev’s invasion of Hungary, and likely would have left earlier if not for his devotion to the late brother under whose influence he joined the Party in the first place—but (as I should have guessed from his sympathetic treatment of working class institutions in Making of the English Working Class) he was a gifted and nuanced libertarian socialist thinker.

Goodway’s chapter on Thompson is especially valuable for its treatment of the influence of the Ranters and Muggletons and other antinomians of the English Revolution, by way of William Blake (another figure who would have been ideal for a background chapter, by the way), on Thompson’s thought. Here we’re getting into Christopher Hill country—also hospitable terrain for anyone who enjoyed Ken MacLeod’s Engines of Light series.

It’s fitting that the book concludes with a chapter on Colin Ward. The very title of the book evokes imagery of Ward.  Rather than a dry Cliff Notes paragraph on all the covers, I’ll just say Goodway’s is a tribute worthy of someone who was—along with James Scott and Elinor Ostrom—the most legitimate heir of Kropotkin. Like Kropotkin, Ward was a communist anarchist—and like Kropotkin, someone for whom that or any other label was wholly inadequate. As Kropotkin did with the High Medieval towns, Ward took the English building societies, sick benefit societies, libertarian schools, and what can only be called “favelas” in neighborhoods like Pittsea and Laindon, as models for a self-organized society based on mutual aid, voluntary cooperation, and conviviality—a society of ingenuity and experimentation, little platoons, and all sorts of free nooks and crannies beyond the imagining of central planners in ministry buildings or corporate headquarters.

Ward, like Kropotkin, was too big to be encompassed by any hypenated “anarcho-” label, and belongs to the common heritage not only of communist anarchists but of individualists, mutualists, municipalists and every other damned kind of -ist under the sun who desires a world fit for human beings to live in. For all of us who long for “a season of rest,” a day when “this earth divided we will make whole,” when “all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” Kropotkin and Ward are patron saints. In his account of a man I already revered, Goodway has given me new reasons for reverence.

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