Memory, history, and homesteading: George Woodcock, Herbert Read, and intellectual networks.

Author:Adams, Matthew S.

There is something wholly fitting about the recent turn to the analysis of transnational networks in anarchist historiography. (2) The rhizomatic metaphor beloved by political theorists when discussing anarchism's ability to grow unperceived beneath the soil and then burst forth in unexpected ways, finds an echo in the inky tendrils that spread radical ideas around the globe. (3) These textual fragments offer the historian of ideas a rich and varied diet, pointing to the ways in which anarchism grew in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries into a distinctive political culture through the parchment, paper, and print that united activists divided by national boundaries. Yet as welcome and important as these efforts are in highlighting the vibrancy of a perennially overlooked politics, there are risks involved with this new interest in anarchist networks. The principal hazard is the potential to fetishise the network as a means of analysis; as if pointing to the spread of newspapers, periodicals, and personal correspondence is sufficient in demonstrating the role of anarchist ideas in shaping history's multifarious anti-capitalist and anti-state struggles. In other words, the burden of historical explanation remains. It is imperative to demonstrate not just that ideas travelled, but to also understand the ways in which they were received, revised, and reimagined in diverse intellectual and cultural contexts. That, in effect, ideas discussed under a flickering bulb in a London meeting room, and scribbled that night in a letter destined for Philadelphia, were not simply interned in a crowded desk drawer before ending their final journey under the attentive eyes of an archivist armed with cardboard folders and a complicated cataloguing system.

The chain of correspondence between George Woodcock and Herbert Read--beginning in 1941 and ending in 1966, two years before Read's death--offers an example of the insights that examining such intellectual networks can furnish, but also the potential shortcomings. As is common with fragmentary textual sources, their incompleteness poses obvious analytical issues. Yet, even though the surviving letters are primarily from Read to Woodcock, drawing on Woodcock's voluminous published work helps flesh out this one-sided conversation. Similarly, such a creative reading also partly addresses the contextual shortfall that is a potential problem with patchy source material. Treating these letters as a jumping off point to consider the broader development of Woodcock's cultural politics is therefore revealing, and grants an insight into the efforts of two prominent intellectuals to rethink anarchist politics in the light of the changing fortunes of the movement. These letters show Woodcock interrogating his memories as his move to Canada encouraged critical reflection on the politics he had promoted in Britain, and his labours, in his most famous role as an historian of anarchist ideas, to invest this revised politics with historical pedigree. They also reveal another theme that united Woodcock and Read: the pursuit of a life in touch with nature that also achieved an integration of manual and intellectual work. While their respective projects floundered, their discussions point to the centrality of contact with nature to their shared cultural politics, but also the tensions generated by this ambition, and their pursuit of lives as public intellectuals.


As Sureyyya Evren and Ruth Kinna's article in this special issue points out, Marie Louise Berneri exercised a profound influence on Woodcock. Reflecting later on his early study Anarchy and Chaos, Woodcock thought it 'painfully evident' that the genesis of this 'no more than ... passable apprentice work' lay in a desire 'to please my new comrades--especially Marie Louise'. (4) In a more general sense, however, Woodcock admitted that his introduction to anarchism had been through Berneri, commenting privately to Read that 'I know that I should never have been active if it had not been for my friendship with her'. (5) This was obviously an intense connection, and Woodcock's biographer is not the only one to have pondered the nature of his relationship with a woman he once described as a 'dark and striking Tuscan beauty' possessed of a 'quick, subtle mind ... and a kind of light Italian clownishness'. (6) To Berneri's husband Vernon Richards, who also played a key role in reviving British anarchism culminating in the rebirth of Freedom newspaper in 1945, Woodcock's feelings for Berneri were perfectly clear: 'Why, he was in love with her, of course!' (7)

Given the nature and depth of this attachment, it is fitting that the only complete thread of letters between Woodcock and Read occur in the immediate aftermath of her death in 1949, as both men reflected on its tragedy, and pondered its likely impact on the future of British anarchism. In his first volume of autobiography, Woodcock invested her death with a supernatural significance. Travelling across a stormy Atlantic on his way to start a new life in Canada, 13 April 1949 found Woodcock moored in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 'In a dream that night a male voice said to me, as I lay in an empty room, "Marie Louise is dead"', he wrote, adding that he laughingly dismissed this vision as he embarked, the next morning, on the lengthy train journey across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver. 'A cable awaited us there', he noted, 'Marie Louise was dead, from heart failure'. (8) In a pathos-laden poem of 1977, Woodcock returned to Berneri's fate as a means of probing not just the tragedy of her death, but also, as an old man ('false-toothed and almost bald/ and ruby-nosed from drink'), a sense of an enduring communion:

Yet it is as if you were always there on the edge of consciousness your ideas echoing in what I wrote, my thought still touching yours. And sometimes when the mind waking slips out of gear and out of time, those years when we worked together, mind turning into mind, seem never ended. The eye of memory is open. (9) But Woodcock's 'intimacy' (10) with her memory was also a means of pondering the trajectory of their shared politics, and there, he implied, was a lesson in the dejections of age from which the eternally youthful Berneri was sheltered:

Utopia has arrived. You would not recognize or like it. We are still hoping for liberation but do not expect it. Yet maybe, he continued, in these valiant defeats there was a warning: 'I have been free as/any man ... and yet I have failed/what we both strove for/Perhaps it was the impossible.' (11)

In their correspondence Woodcock and Read discussed her death with less emotion, but both framed it as a watershed moment for the future of anarchism in Britain. Writing to Woodcock on 15 June 1949, Read admitted that he did not know 'exactly what happened' despite having 'heard the technical terms from Alex [Comfort]'. He also reported the details of the scattering of her ashes to the distant Woodcock, which was, he wrote with characteristic understatement, 'rather a painful ceremony'. What British anarchism had lost, Read continued, was a vitally dynamic figure who also succeeded in appealing to both sides of what he believed was an essentially divided movement:

No one else has her particular and fanatical devotion to the cause--it was in her blood as well as her brain. And she, as few others, could bring [sic] the gap between workers and intellectuals. I have never been happy about "Freedom" because of that gulf--intellectuals writing for proletarians will not do. (12) Replying, Woodcock admitted that he too was uncertain about 'what will happen to the movement'. 'Marie Louise always contended that Vero [Vernon Richards] was the real drive', he wrote, but he thought that the truth was that 'she and Vero reacted on each other and did much more together than they would have done individually'. Turning to his own politicisation, Woodcock then immediately qualified this statement, adding that actually 'Marie Louise was always a much better inspirer of action than Vero; I know that I should never have been active if it had not for my friendship with her.' (13)

Woodcock may have highlighted Berneri's pivotal role in his political development, but in a more profound sense, a particular reading of her legacy remained vital to him in negotiating his position as an anarchist intellectual. This was clear even in 1949 when Woodcock contributed an essay to a gedenkschrift entitled Marie Louise Berneri: 1918-1949: A Tribute. Central to his argument was the idea that Berneri, despite her intense commitment to the movement, developed a more realistic position conscious of the 'great complexity of the issues which faced the struggle for a free world'. In Woodcock's reading, Berneri 'realised the superficiality of many of the old romantic and optimistic assumptions of anarchism', and saw that 'evolution towards the fulfilment of libertarian ideas' must occur beyond the economic realm alone, and 'embrace life in its varied aspects'. Reaching this conclusion, he continued that Berneri, with her 'innate realism' realised the necessity of turning to 'psychology and education' to further the libertarian ideal, but accepted that the actual achievement of an anarchist society was unlikely. But rather than quietism, this conclusion 'made her more rather than less insistent on the need to propagate libertarian ideas', and it informed her assessment that whatever the 'vicissitudes of fortune' that plagued the anarchist movement, it had always 'provided a point of concentration for the heterogeneous forces working towards freedom'. (14)

Regardless of the accuracy of this reading, the significance of this narrative to Woodcock's politics was that Berneri became an ally in his own search for a coherent political position. There is, for instance, a striking similarity between his assessment of Berneri's...

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