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

Author:Greenway, Judy
Position:Book review

David Goodway

Liverpool University Press, 2006, 401 + xi pp.

Paperback [pounds sterling]20, ISBN:1-84631-026-1; hardback [pounds sterling]50, ISBN 1-84631-025-3.

Coming out as an anarchist has some similarities to coming out as gay. A life-threatening admission in some times and places; in Britain today, likely to be met with scorn, disbelief or a patronising, amused tolerance. Goodway writes feelingly of the impact of such attitudes on his own life and work as a historian. Publishers are wary of the subject, and researching anarchism is not the best way to get on in academia. (1) More importantly, the political invisibility of British anarchism means, according to Goodway, that contemporary movements for change are missing out on crucial insights that anarchist example and analysis could provide. To adapt a phrase from one of his subjects, E.P. Thompson, this book attempts to rescue anarchists and anarchism from the enormous condescension of scholars and political activists.

Britain may not have had an anarchist movement as such, but, Goodway argues, it has had 'a distinguished, minority intellectual, overwhelmingly literary anarchist--and [...] libertarian--tradition', part of 'a submerged but creative and increasingly relevant current of social and political theory and practice' (pp.10, 11). Acknowledging this tradition and its influences is, he believes, crucial if present-day radical activists are to learn from the past and not unnecessarily to re-invent, re-theorize, what is already there.

The book focuses on eleven writers representing a spectrum from left libertarianism to fully fledged anarchism in all its diverse manifestations. The central figures, Edward Carpenter, Oscar Wilde, John Cowper Powys, Herbert Read, Aldous Huxley, Alex Comfort, Christopher Pallis and Colin Ward, are each assessed on the basis of their contribution to anarchist thought. The remaining three, William Morris, George Orwell and E.P. Thompson, are discussed in the context of movements and events which have been particularly significant for anarchists in Britain: the late nineteenth/early twentieth century upsurge in anarchism, libertarian socialism and the labour movement; the Spanish Civil War; and the emergence, towards the end of the 1950s, of the new left and the campaign for nuclear disarmament. A host of other familiar and unfamiliar characters make brief, tantalising appearances.

Rather than seeking to produce a pure line of anarchist thought, the...

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