Pacifism, violence and aesthetics: George Woodcock's anarchist sojourn, 1940-1950.

Author:Antliff, Mark

(For Ken Allen)

'Art is antithetical to violence'--so claimed George Woodcock (1912-1995) in his opening editorial for the first edition of the literary journal Now, which he edited from late March 1940 to fall 1947. (2) In the third issue of Now (Fall, 1940) Woodcock lent nuance to this declaration by announcing his principled opposition to military service, stating that recruitment into the army in wartime Britain was 'incompatible with my whole conception of morality and service to mankind, and entirely opposed to the function of the artist'. (3) Shortly after this statement appeared Woodcock went before a government tribunal and received conscientious objector status, but unlike his close friend the poet and Christian anarchist Derek. S. Savage (who was granted an unconditional exemption) Woodcock was required to join the War Agricultural Committee (WAC) and work the land. (4)

As he later recounted, from its inception Now staked out an 'anarchist-pacifist' position, and although such ideological allegiances did not govern Woodcock's editorial policy during the journal's first seven issues (1940-41), when the second series (1943-47) appeared in 1943, he stated unequivocally that 'the volumes of Now will be edited from an anarchist point of view'. (5) That this orientation continued to encompass anarchist-pacifism was made clear in Woodcock's repeated meditations on the theme of violence and aesthetics, not only in Now but in a series of anarchist booklets and related publications that appeared up to his emigration to Canada in April 1949.

In this essay I will examine Woodcock's correlation of art and anarchism with pacifism by addressing three interrelated themes that preoccupied him throughout the 1940's: the artist's role in society, the ethics of the anarchist artist, and the relation of art and anarchism to violence. Woodcock's views on these subjects evolved over time, and in some key instances--such as the function of violence in revolutionary change--they remained nebulous for an extended period. I will also examine the role of the visual arts in Woodcock's thinking, to account for his enthusiasm for the Polish expatriate artist, Jankel Adler, his endorsement of the aesthetic theories of Derek Savage, Alex Comfort and Herbert Read and his interactions with the Surrealists. I would argue that the reproduction in Now's second series of works of such diverse artists as the anti-war cartoonist John Olday (No.1), the Surrealists Valentine Penrose (No 3) and Andre Masson (No. 7), the Neo-Romantic abstractionist Stanley Jackson (No. 4) and most importantly, the Expressionist Jankel Adler (No. 6), all testify to Woodcock's attempt find a visual corollary to his anarchist ideals.

By considering George Woodcock's evolving theory of art in tandem with his developing anarchism I hope to shed new light on the role of Now as a laboratory for politicised aesthetics during the 1940's. As I will demonstrate, by the time he left England in 1949, Woodcock had developed a unique theory of anarchist art and creativity that had an enduring impact on his thinking about culture.


Woodcock's first sustained exposure to anarchist pacifist circles came at age twenty eight (in the spring of 1940) through his burgeoning friendship with fellow poet and critic Derek S. Savage. It was through Savage that Woodcock first became familiar with the anarchist literary doctrine of 'personalism' and that movement's leading light, Henry Miller. (6) When Woodcock began corresponding with Savage in April 1940, the latter was the European editor for the American anarchist-pacifist journal The Phoenix (1938-1940) as well as an organizer for the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). That April Savage had distributed the first issue of Now at a PPU meeting in Cambridge and over the course of 1940 Savage attempted to lure Woodcock to join him in the village of Dry Drayton, Cambridgeshire where he hoped they would establish 'some kind of community on the land' made up of people 'united in opposition to war' who would farm for sustenance, run a printing press, and constitute 'an absolute community in possessions and money'. (7)

Between the appearance of Now No 3 in autumn 1940, and Now No. 4 in spring 1941, Woodcock had in fact experimented in just this manner by joining an eclectic community of 'anarchists, left-wing socialists, secular minded pacifists' and 'Quakers' founded by the pacifist and Peace Pledge Union stalwart John Middleton Murry in Langham, Essex. (8) Those ties were reinforced that spring when Woodcock moved Now to Cambridge and Alex Comfort became a regular contributor to the journal. Comfort later recollected that he was won over to anarchism shortly after joining Now's editorial board in April 1941. (9)

Woodcock recounted that his views were further 'clarified' when he met Herbert Read in the summer of 1941. That fall or winter Read introduced Woodcock to 'the group of young intellectuals running Freedom Press', including the charismatic anarchist Marie Louise Berneri 'who completed my conversion and recognized that in saving Now the anarchist might make impressions on the literary community'. (10)

Now had ceased publication in 1942 when Woodcock abandoned his WAC service and became itinerant; with Berneri's backing he was able to revive the journal in 1943. Berneri, together with fellow militants Tom Brown, Albert Meltzer, and Vernon Richards had launched the journal War Commentary (1939-1950) as an organ of the Freedom Press following the outbreak of war in September 1939, and concurrently they helped form the Anarchist Federation to bring together disparate anarchist groups across Britain and Scotland. When the first edition of the new series of Now appeared in early 1943 it was published under the auspices of Freedom Press but as Woodcock later recounted 'the anarcho-syndicalists connected with Freedom Press objected that avant-garde poetry and literary criticism had nothing to do with the workers' struggle' (11) These advocates of 'revolutionary purism' led by anarchists Albert Meltzer and Tom Brown instituted a compromise that continued until the journal's demise in 1947. After the first edition of the new series Woodcock became the actual publisher while the Freedom Press served as distributer and allowed him to use their address, first at 27 Belsize Road and then 27 Red Lion Street. (12)

Meltzer, who became an intractable opponent of Woodcock, recalled in his memoirs that the Anarchist Federation 'as then constituted was anarcho-syndicalist and endeavoured to exclude pacifists, supporters of the war, and non-syndicalists', on the basis that anarchism 'was a fighting creed with a programme for breaking down repression' as opposed to 'a marble effigy of utopian ideals, to be admired and defined and even lived up to by some chosen individuals within the frame work of a repressive society'. According to Meltzer, Woodcock held the latter view, but even worse, was purportedly a 'careerist [who] wanted to use Read's influence and the movement's assets to build his own literary clique by means of a magazine (Now)'. (13) Despite such resistance, beginning in 1941, Woodcock became a regular contributor to War Commentary and he published a series of polemical texts under the auspices of Freedom Press outlining his anarchist-informed reflections on such diverse topics as agriculture (New Life to the Land, 1942), the railway system (Railways and Society, 1943), housing and urbanism (Homes or Hovels: the housing Problem and its Solution, 1944), the history of anarchism (Anarchy or Chaos, 1944), anarchist ethics (Anarchism and Morality, 1945), and communitarian ideology (The Basis of Communal Living, 1947). (14)


The intractable divide posited by Meltzer between the 'fighting creed' of bona-fide anarchist syndicalists united in a collective struggle, and individualist pacifists and their allies in the arts, was a binary opposition Woodcock set out to refute in his Freedom Press polemics and related writings. From 1941 onward Woodcock joined his War Commentary colleagues in promoting syndicalist organisation as the key means by which society could be changed, but he additionally sought to define a place and role for art and creativity within this syndicalist matrix. Concurrently he worked to disentangle syndicalist theory and praxis from anarchist modes of violence and armed conflict that figures like Meltzer continued to value. In Anarchy or Chaos Woodcock cast the anarchists' endorsement of syndicalism after 1900 as part and parcel of a rejection of 'propaganda by the deed' wherein individual anarchists carried out 'terrorist acts' against 'the figureheads of tyranny'. (15) Woodcock dismissed 'the ineffectiveness' of such 'terrorism' and lauded the anarchists' alternative strategy of turning 'the new syndicates into effective instruments for the social revolution'. (16)

'Syndicalism', we are told, 'favours a change in society, not through parliamentary means or a political revolution which would merely change one government for another, but by the direct economic action of the workers, expressed in methods of boycott, sabotage, ca'canny, the strike, and above all the general strike, and aiming at the true revolution and the abolition of property and the state'. Syndicalists 'hold that workers should be organized according to industry', that 'each industry should form a single syndicate', and that syndicates would be joined together by means of 'a federal organisation, in which local units are autonomous and carry out actions without reference to any central executive authority'. (17) This new form of organization, free from any 'centralist and authoritarian structure', is proclaimed by Woodcock to be 'the one social method by which the free, classless society can be attained, and the evils of government be abolished forever'. (18)

Woodcock declared...

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