George Woodcock: the ghost writer of anarchism.

Author:Evren, Sureyyya


Anarchists have never been backwards in coming forwards with accounts of their doctrines. Notable contributions include Wilson's Anarchism (1884), Malatesta's A Talk About Anarchist Communism Between Two Workers, Voltairine de Cleyre's Why I am an Anarchist, Berkman's The ABC of Anarchism (1929), Rocker's Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (1948) Goldman's Anarchism: What it Really Stands For (1911) Guerin's Anarchism (1965), Walter's About Anarchism (1969), Meltzer and Christie's The Floodgates of Anarchy (1970), Milstein's Anarchism and Its Aspirations (2010). Yet Woodcock's book, first published in March 1962 has endured. Nicolas Walter believed that Anarchism was 'the most widely read book on the subject' guessing that it had 'introduced more people to anarchism than any single publication.' (3) In the foreword to his own introductory text, Colin Ward similarly described Anarchism as 'probably the most widely read book on the subject in the world'. (4)

That Anarchism eclipsed all the alternative introductions is perhaps not surprising. Woodcock's literary connections helped him secure Penguin's interest, even before the American edition had had time to establish a reputation. Taken under Penguin's wing the book found an international readership and a global distribution network. Translated into countless languages, it remains in the (bottom half) of top 100 book on anarchism, according to Amazon UK rankings, and notwithstanding anarchism's rich literary heritage it was for many years the standard reference for anarchist scholarship. (5) Its significance for both '60s radicals, and for the generations who followed is neatly summarised by Jeremy Jennings. He also provides what was--at least until recently--a familar categorisation of key texts. There is Anarchism 'the standard text on the history of anarchism' and then there are other works. Jennings mentions Peter Marshall, James Joll and others. (6)

Text-book introductions to anarchism not only list Woodock as a source, but replicate key features of his analysis: that anarchism was principally a European phenomena, that it existed between the 1880s and 1930s, dying with the Spanish revolution in 1939, that it was an idea and that it was importantly elaborated by a series of special men. (7) Woodcock's history of libertarian ideas has not only contributed to an ongoing conceptualisation of 'classical anarchism' by identifying its key nineteenthcentury exponents, it also helped define the parameters of 'new anarchism' without even providing a clear account of this category. Our argument is that Anarchism has played a central role in the construction of the anarchist canon and our intention in evaluating Woodcock's work is to reveal the assumptions, ideologies and logic that underpin this canon and probe its boundaries and limits.


George Woodcock (8 May 1912-28 January 1995) was a poet, man of letters, historian, biographer and critic. Born in Winnipeg he is celebrated both as a Canadian and for his outstanding contribution to Canadian literary culture. The 'Winnipeg boy', as W.H. New calls him 'virtually created Canadian literature', according to Peter Hughes, notably through his founding and editorship of the influential quarterly journal of the same name. (8) His politics also distinguished him. For Douglas Fetherling Woodcock was Canada's 'only anti-authoritarian intellectual'. (9) However, in this role, the cultural rootedness of Woodcock's thought is open to dispute. Woodcock's family moved to England less than a year after his birth and he remained in the country for 30 years or so, moving permanently back to Canada only in 1949. By this time, he was well-versed in anarchist thought and had made formative encounters with comrades in the London movement. (10)

The first person who talked to Woodcock about anarchism was a fellow commuter called Brooks. Brooks was not an anarchist but 'thought it must be considered seriously' as a doctrine and he lent Woodcock the first anarchist book he ever read: Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist. (11) Perhaps this introduction to anarchist autobiography was significant--Woodcock used biography consistently (though not exclusively) as an approach to structure his analysis of anarchism and he produced a series of biographical sketches of some of the 'major' anarchist thinkers he represented in Anarchism. In addition to the book-length studies Woodcock published on Godwin, Kropotkin and Proudhon, he included chapters on Proudhon and Kropotkin, alongside Herzen, Orwell, Graham Greene, Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, Franz Kafka in The Writer and Politics (1948).

Woodcock inhabited the literary circles of the magazine Twentieth Century Verse in London. The group met in the radical bookshop of Charles Lahr, who had become 'an anarchist in his youth in Germany'. (12) Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet in the Western Front, Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero and Robert Graves's Good-Bye to All That left a deep impression on him during this period and he became 'a pacifist anarchist'. (13) Interwar Spanish politics proved decisive for the addition of anarchism to Woodcock's 'spectrum of acceptable beliefs'. The abdication of Alphonso XIII in 1931, Woodcock remembered, 'encouraged me to believe that peaceful overthrow of authority was possible, that pacifism and revolution might be reconciled'. (14) Deciding 'to refuse to serve militarily if a war came about' (15) Woodcock saw anarchism as a logical extension of pacifism in times of war and extraordinary worldwide violence:

Having decided that I would resist the dictates of the state, if necessary to the extent of going to prison, I realized that war resistance led naturally and logically to anarchism, since one was necessarily putting one's own conscience above the law, and therefore denying the presumptions of the state and legality. (16) When war was declared, Woodcock cited the influence of Gandhi, Wilde and some individualist anarchists in his application to be recognised as a conscience objector. (17)

Woodcock began attending anarchist public meetings in London 1941 and he built important relationships with the War Commentary and Freedom Press Group during the 1940s while he was publishing his own magazine NOW. He felt closest to those anarchists who were 'almost completely Gandhian' and disagreed with speakers who spoke in favour of revolutionary violence. (18) He dated his interest in anarchist history to this time and records that his relationship with Albert Meltzer declined as a result, because Meltzer identified him as a potential rival. (19)


Woodcock calls his seminal work Anarchism his 'critical history' and compares it favourably to his earlier book Anarchy or Chaos. (20) Writing in the 1980s, he regarded this book as 'no more than a passable apprentice work, its ideas half-digested, its story distorted, and the desire to please my new comrades--especially Marie Louise--painfully evident'. (21) Frank Mintz, a critic of Anarchism, located the important difference between the two texts in the shift in Woodcock's politics. Anarchy or Chaos, he argued, was written when Woodcock was still an anarchist. Although some of the strongest affirmations of those convictions found their way into the later text, Anarchism, by contrast, was the work of a writer who had become hostile to anarchism, and, above all, to the idea of revolutionary transformation. (22)

One explanation for Woodcock's turn against forms of anarchism he identified with Bakuninism might be the disappointment that followed the crushing of the Spanish Revolution. However, his autobiography indicates that he felt a greater sense of disappointment at the ending of the war. Naturally, Woodcock did not regret the peace, but he felt an acute sense of pointlessness in being a pacifist anarchist in the post-war political climate. There were personal reasons, too. Reading his autobiography, Letter to The Past, it seems that his wife, Ingeborg, played a role in his disenchantment with anarchism and in encouraging his 'escape' to Canada. Woodcock does not elaborate about Ingeborg, respecting her wish not to be drawn in his memoir, nevertheless the retreat from anarchist politics is apparent.

Woodcock records that his anarchist friends treated his departure as a betrayal--though Nicholas Walter suggested that the death of Marie Louise Berneri was by far the most significant event of that time and that Woodcock's departure 'was scarcely noticed'. (23) Whatever his former comrades felt about his departure, Woodcock does not contest the judgement he attributes to them. He admitted: 'I would never have decided to go away from London if I had not concluded that my involvement in anarchism must now be only philosophic'. (24) Factionalism and 'the bitter disunity within the anarchist movement had ... made me skeptical as to whether our beliefs could ever be effectively manifest as more than a current of thought sustained by individual thinkers and through them influencing society'. (25) Woodcock's sense of anarchism's ideational power is one of the main themes of Anarchism. Eschewing political action, he left for Canada convinced that the ideas of individual thinkers were the most perfect manifestation of anarchism.

It seems that Woodcock always felt a need to legitimise his decision to quit the London anarchist movement at the end of '40s. Anarchism played an important part in this process insofar as it declared that the anarchist movement he had 'abandoned'...

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