George Woodcock's transatlantic anarchism.

Author:Antliff, Allan
 
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Literary scholar Peter Hughes' comment (in 1974) that George Woodcock 'has written more than many literate people have read' might come as something of a surprise to readers of Anarchist Studies. (1) While famous for his historical study Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, first published by Penguin in 1962 and subsequently reprinted in numerous editions, the prominence of this book has tended to overshadow the full range of his activities before and after his relocation from Britain to Canada in 1949. As a journalist observed in a 1975 profile published in the Ottawa Citizen, Woodcock combined the roles of 'poet, journalist, critic, travel writer, playwright, historian, editor, political commentator [and] biographer'. (2) His output was so prolific that by the time of his death in 1995 he was a well-known public intellectual in English-speaking Canada, though, sadly, fame proved fleeting: one is hard-pressed to encounter any mention of him nowadays.

Woodcock was born to British immigrant parents in Winnipeg in May 1912, and moved to England before his first birthday (his mother was unenthused with prairie winters). An 'academic career' was proffered when he turned 17, but Woodcock's unwillingness to accept a stipend from his grandfather--offered on the condition that he study for the Anglican orders at Cambridge--foreclosed that possibility. Tempting as it is to see this youthful intransigence foreshadowing his politics--an echo of Kropotkin's decision to reject the position of secretary to the Russian Geographical Society on the basis that a life of privilege came at the expense of the many--Woodcock's reasoning was more pedestrian. 'I refused ... partly because my faith was beginning to waver', he noted in his first autobiography Letter to the Past (1982), 'but even more because I was. so inordinately shy that the idea of standing in a pulpit and preaching to a congregation paralysed me with terror'. (3)

The route out of the small town where his family had settled was temporarily blocked and for the next eleven years, starting in 1929 at age seventeen, he commuted from his home in Marlow, Buckinghamshire to London's Paddington Station, where he occupied a variety of roles as a 'glorified office boy' for the Great Western Railway. Despite the petty frustrations of catching the 7:58 am commuter train for over a decade, and the 'barrenness, frustration, boredom, darkness' of his mundane labour, the city was a 'paradise for the poor aspirant scholar and aesthete'. (4) Encountering periodicals like Alfred Orage's New English Weekly did much to broaden Woodcock's horizons, as did London's cultural riches. He regularly visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, and paced the corridors of the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) armed with a knowledge of modern art gleaned from articles by Clive Bell and Herbert Read. In addition, the daily commuter train became an unlikely surrogate 'college': one of his fellow passengers, 'Brooks', introduced Woodcock to socialism via anecdote-peppered discussions of William Morris, H.M. Hyndman, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw and, most importantly, Peter Kropotkin. (5)

Surprisingly, given that Woodcock would later be a remarkably prolific writer, his initial literary experiments were faltering, and only modestly successful. First finding an audience in Orage's New English Weekly in 1932 with the publication of two poems, he then endured a barren period for the next five years. This was no doubt frustrating for a writer making his living as a railway clerk, but befriending the German anarchist and publisher Charles Lahr opened new avenues. Having brought out early work by D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, Lahr was an important connection and encouraged Woodcock's efforts. A number of his poems soon appeared under Lahr's imprint, and he gained more success as a poet, publishing in Geoffrey Grigson's New Verse and Julian Symons' Twentieth Century Verse. (6)

His political thinking was also developing. Aside from Marx's work, which he read 'with difficulty and underlying distaste', exposure to Morris' News from Nowhere (1890), Shaw's Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism (1928) and G.D.H. Cole's Guild Socialism had an impact. John Reed's Ten Days that Shock the World (1919) led him to temporarily venerate Communism, but the photograph of Lenin that adorned the mantelpiece in his bedroom was tossed as he grew more sophisticated. An aesthetic component prefigured his future direction. The 'turgid, slogan-ridden prose of Stalinism' was unappealing and, Woodcock adds; 'long before I heard such sentiments elaborated by George Orwell, I had a developed the rule of thumb in considering political pundits: By their prose ye shall know them!' (7)

Events in Spain in 1936 and Franz Borkenau's The Spanish Cockpit (1937) raised his awareness of the anarchist movement, but his political trajectory was propelled, first and foremost, by pacifism. With war looming on the horizon in the 'doom-obsessed years' at the end of the 1930s, the prospect of fighting to maintain Britain's rickety imperial edifice--especially after he had witnessed the poverty it...

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