Anarchism in the United Kingdom

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Anarchism in the United Kingdom initially developed within the context of radical Whiggery and Protestant religious dissent. During the English Civil War and the industrialisation English anarchist thought developed in the context of revolutionary working class politics.

Early development

Like much of the rest of Europe, Medieval England was ruled by a limited monarch in coalition with a parliament of wealthy aristocrats and landowners. Unlike continental Europe, the parliament of the rich maintained its rights and privileges. When the English monarchy sought to establish absolute monarchy, the English parliament rebelled. During this civil war, dissenting Protestants and rural workers began forming utopian communities, such as the Diggers, based on common ownership of the tools of production. These revolts can be distinguished from medieval revolts like Wat Tyler's on the basis that they occurred inside a commodified production system. (See Christopher Hill, Century of Revolution). As a result of this Civil War, the English aristocratic and capitalist ruling classes united behind Parliament. The Civil War, however, established many civil liberties.

Gerrard Winstanley, who published a pamphlet calling for communal ownership and social and economic organization in small agrarian communities in the 17th century, is considered another of the forerunners of modern anarchism. The first modern author to have published a treatise explicitly advocating the absence of government was William Godwin in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793); though he did not use the word anarchism, some today regard him as the "founder of philosophical anarchism".[1]

Liberals were often labeled "anarchists" by monarchists, even though they did not call for the abolition of hierarchy.[citation needed] Still, they did promote the idea of human equality, individual rights, and the responsibility of the people to judge their governments, which provided a groundwork for the development of anarchist thought.

In the modern era, the first to use the term "anarchy" to mean something other than chaos was Louis-Armand, Baron de Lahontan, in his Nouveaux voyages dans l'Amérique septentrionale, (New voyages in northern America) (1703) where he described the indigenous American society, which had no state, laws, prisons, priests or private property, as being in anarchy.[2]

William Godwin

Modern anarchism sprang from the secular or religious thought of the Enlightenment, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau's arguments for the moral centrality of freedom..[3] From this climate William Godwin developed what many consider the first expression of modern anarchist thought.[4] Godwin was, according to Peter Kropotkin, "the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his work". In 1793, William Godwin, who has often[5] been cited as the first anarchist, wrote Political Justice, which some consider to be the first expression of anarchism.[4][6] Godwin, a philosophical anarchist, from a rationalist and utilitarian basis opposed revolutionary action and saw a minimal state as a present "necessary evil" that would become increasingly irrelevant and powerless by the gradual spread of knowledge.[4][7]

Nineteenth century to World War II

In the late nineteenth century, opposition to the existing order of society and a feeling that one could do without it, was not uncommon. It varied from the gradualist support for the English republic of Charles Bradlaugh to the revolutionary republicanism of Algernon Charles Swinburne, to the anarcho-socialism of William Morris and Oscar Wilde to the full-blown anarchism of Peter Kropotkin and his sympathisers. The Socialist League was an early revolutionary socialist organisation in the United Kingdom. Around the middle of this same year, 1887, anarchists began to outnumber socialists in the Socialist League.[8] The 3rd Annual Conference, held in London on 29 May 1887 marked the change, with a majority of the 24 delegates voting in favor of an anarchist-sponsored resolution declaring that "This conference endorses the policy of abstention from parliamentary action, hitherto pursued by the League, and sees no sufficient reason for altering it."[9] Frederick Engels, living in London and a very interested observer in the League's affairs, saw the role of William Morris as decisive. He recounted the events of the 3rd Conference to his friend Friedrich Sorge in a 4 June 1887 letter:

"The anarchist elements which had gained admission to [the conference of the Socialist League] were victorious, being supported by Morris, who has a mortal hatred of all things parliamentary... Resolution — in itself quite innocuous as there can after all be no question of parliamentary action here and now — adopted by 17 votes to 11...

"What really clinched the matter was Morris' declaration that he would quit the moment any parliamentary action was accepted in principle. And since Morris makes good the Commonweal's deficit to the tune of £4 a week, this was for many the decisive factor.

"Our people now intend to get the provinces organised, which they are at present well on the way to doing, and to call an extraordinary conference in about three or four months' time with a view to quashing the above. But it's unlikely to succeed; in the fabrication of voting sections, the anarchists are vastly superior to ourselves and can make eight enfranchised sections out of seven men.... The anarchists, by the way, may shortly throw our people out, and that might be all to the good."[10]

As the tenor of the organisation became increasingly clear, a steady attrition of many of the group's international socialists began to take place. In August 1888, the London branch of the Socialist League to which Tussy Marx and Edward Aveling belonged seceded in favor of establishing itself as an independent organization, the Bloomsbury Socialist Society.[11] By the end of 1888 many other parliamentary-oriented individuals had exited the Socialist League to return to the SDF, with others who remained hostile to the SDF's parliamentary emphasis choosing to involve themselves in the burgeoning movement for so-called "New Unionism."[8] As the socialist factions left, the anarchist faction solidified its hold on the organisation. By 1889, the anarchist wing had completely captured the organisation. William Morris was stripped of the editorship of Commonweal in favor of Frank Kitz, an anarchist workman. Morris was left to foot the ongoing operating deficit of the publication, some £4 per week [8] — this at a time when £150 per year was the average annual family income in the kingdom.[12]

Herbert Read provided intellectual stimulus during this period, with key works such as Anarchy & Order; Poetry & Anarchism (1938), Philosophy of Anarchism (1940), "Existentialism, Marxism and Anarchism" (1949), Revolution & Reason (1953), "Icon and Idea" (1955) and My Anarchism (1966), the latter shortly before his death. Kate Sharpley (1895–1978) was a Deptford-born anarchist and anti-World War I activist. She is chiefly known today through the work of the library named in her honour. She married in 1922 and dropped out of anarchist activities until a chance encounter with Albert Meltzer at a train station during an anti-fascist action. After her death, when Brixton anarchists came to name the archives they had collected from the movement, her name was chosen in preference to a more famous one. The Kate Sharpley Library maintains an archive of original anarchist documents and publishes books and pamphlets based on those materials.

Post-war era

Ethel Mannin (6 October 1900[13] – 5 December 1984) was a popular British novelist, travel writer and anarchist. Mannin listed Bart de Ligt and A. S. Neill as thinkers who influenced her ideas.[14] Mannin's 1944 book Bread and Roses: A Utopian Survey and Blue-Print has been described by historian Robert Graham as setting forth "an ecological vision in opposition to the prevailing and destructive industrial organization of society".[15] When Vernon Richards and three other editors were arrested at the beginning of 1945 for attempting "to undermine the affections of members of His Majesty's Forces.",[16] Benjamin Britten, E. M. Forster, Augustus John, George Orwell, Herbert Read (chairman), Osbert Sitwell and George Woodcock set up the Freedom Defence Committee to "uphold the essential liberty of individuals and organizations, and to defend those who are persecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, writing and action."[17]

File:Colin Ward.jpg
Colin Ward in his workroom, October 2003

The Syndicalist Workers' Federation was a syndicalist group active in post-war Britain,[18] and one of the Solidarity Federation's earliest predecessors. It was formed in 1950 by members of the dissolved Anarchist Federation of Britain (not to be confused with the current Anarchist Federation which was founded as the Anarchist Communist Federation in 1986). Unlike the AFB, which was influenced by anarcho-syndicalist ideas but ultimately not syndicalist itself, the SWF decided to pursue a more definitely syndicalist, worker-centred strategy from the outset. The group joined the International Workers Association and during the Franco era gave particular support to the Spanish resistance and the underground CNT anarcho-syndicalist union, previously involved in the 1936 Spanish Revolution and subsequent Civil War against a right-wing military coup backed by both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The SWF initially had some success, but when Tom Brown, a long-term and very active member was forced out of activity, it declined until by 1979 it had only one lone branch in Manchester. The SWF then dissolved itself into the group founded as the Direct Action Movement. Its archives are held by the International Institute of Social History, and a selection of the SWFs publication have been digitally published on

Colin Ward was editor of the British anarchist newspaper Freedom from 1947 to 1960, and the founder and editor of the monthly anarchist journal Anarchy from 1961 to 1970.[19] Over the years the Freedom editorial group has included Jack Robinson, Pete Turner, Colin Ward, Nicolas Walter, Alan Albon, John Rety, Nino Staffa, Dave Mansell, Gillian Fleming, Mary Canipa, Philip Sansom, Arthur Moyse and many others. Clifford Harper maintained a loose association for 30 years. Albert Meltzer was a contributor in the 1950s to the long-running anarchist paper Freedom before leaving in 1965 to start his own venture Wooden Shoe Press. Soon Meltzer was to be involved in a long and bitter dispute with fellow anarchist and former comrade at Freedom Press Vernon Richards which entangled many of their associates and the organisations with which they were involved and continued after both their deaths. Although the feud started in a dispute arising from the possibility of Wooden Shoe moving into Freedom premisses, there were also political differences. Meltzer advocated a more firebrand and proletarian variety of anarchism than Richards and often denounced him and the Freedom collective as "liberals". Meltzer was a co-founder of the anarchist newspaper Black Flag and was a prolific writer on anarchist topics. Amongst his books were Anarchism, Arguments For and Against (originally published by Cienfuegos Press) [2], The Floodgates of Anarchy (co-written with Stuart Christie) and his autobiography, I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels, published by AK Press [3] shortly before his death. Meltzer also was involved in the founding of the Anarchist Black Cross. He joined the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement in the early 80s and was a member of it, and its successor organisation the Solidarity Federation until his death.

A leading anarcho-pacifist, Alex Comfort considered himself "an aggressive anti-militarist", and he believed that pacifism rested "solely upon the historical theory of anarchism".[20][21] He was an active member of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and a conscientious objector in World War II. In 1951 Comfort was a signatory of the Authors’ World Peace Appeal, but later resigned from its committee, claiming the AWPA had become dominated by Soviet sympathisers.[22] Later in the decade he actively supported both the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War when the Committee of 100 was formed, Comfort was imprisoned for a month, alongside Bertrand Russell and others, for refusing to be bound over not to take part in the Trafalgar Square protest in September 1961. Among the works on anarchism by Comfort is Peace and Disobedience (1946), one of many pamphlets he wrote for Peace News and PPU, and Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950).[20] He exchanged public correspondence with George Orwell defending pacifism in the open letter/poem, "Letter to an American Visitor", under the pseudonym "Obadiah Hornbrooke".[23] Comfort's 1972 book The Joy of Sex earned him worldwide fame and $3 million. But he was unhappy to become known as "Dr. Sex" and to have his other works given so little attention.[24]

On the last day of July 1964 an 18-year-old Stuart Christie departed London for Paris, where he picked up plastic explosives from the anarchist organisation Defensa Interior,[25] and then Madrid on a mission to kill General Francisco Franco. This was to be one of at least 30 attempts on the dictator's life. After his release he continued his activism in the anarchist movement in the United Kingdom, re-formed the Anarchist Black Cross and Black Flag with Albert Meltzer, was acquitted of involvement with the Angry Brigade, and started the publishing house Cienfuegos Press (later Refract Publications), which for a number of years he operated from the remote island of Sanday, Orkney, where he also edited and published a local Orcadian newspaper, The Free-Winged Eagle. Christie wrote with Meltzer, The Floodgates of Anarchy and later and We, the Anarchists! A study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937 (2000).[26]

Contemporary times

A surge of popular interest in anarchism occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. In the UK this was associated with the punk rock movement; the band Crass is celebrated[by whom?] for its anarchist and pacifist ideas. Since the turn of the millennium, UK anarchists have expressed their beliefs through the medium of film, rave music, and live theatre. Class War is a UK class struggle based group and newspaper originally set up by Ian Bone and others in 1983. It subsequently mutated various forms, becoming specifically anarchist. Inspired by the Stop the City actions of 1983 and 1984, Class War organised a number of 'Bash The Rich' demonstrations, in which supporters were invited to march through and disrupt wealthier areas of London such as Kensington, and Henley-on-Thames (during the annual Regatta), bearing banners and placards with slogans such as "Behold your future executioners!" (a phrase coined by the anarchist Lucy Parsons). A national conference was in held Manchester in 1986 and proposed that groups and individuals who produced and supported the paper should form "Class War" groups as part of a national federation with common 'aims and principles'. A Class War Federation developed, gaining particular prominence in the anti-poll tax movement of the late 80s and early 1990s. When Class War spokesman Andy Murphy praised those who had rioted in the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax Riots as "working class heroes",[27] Class War gained wider media exposure (including a 'tea time' interview with Ian Bone on the Jonathan Ross Show (see Poll Tax Riots)). 1992 saw the publication of Unfinished Business - The Politics of Class War published jointly with AK Press that set out where Class War came from, and where it wanted to go.

A rejection of industrial technology is also prominent in the views of many green anarchists, with Colin Ward acting as theorist for this national current. This worldview was associated with the growth of the anti-roads movement in the UK (Reclaim The Streets), the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front. The magazine Green Anarchist was for a while the principal voice in the UK advocating green anarchism, an explicit fusion of libertarian socialist and ecological thinking. Founded after the 1984 Stop the City protests, the magazine was launched in the summer of that year by an editorial collective consisting of Alan Albon, Richard Hunt and Marcus Christo. Early issues featured a range of broadly anarchist and ecological ideas, bringing together groups and individuals as varied as Class War, veteran anarchist writer Colin Ward, anarcho-punk band Crass, as well as the Peace Convoy, anti-nuclear campaigners, animal rights activists and so on. However the diversity that many saw as the publication's greatest strength quickly led to irreconcilable arguments between the essentially pacifist approach of Albon and Christo, and the advocacy of violent confrontation with the State favoured by Hunt. During the 1990s Green Anarchist came under the helm of an editorial collective that included Paul Rogers, Steve Booth and others, during which period the publication became increasingly aligned with primitivism, an anti-civilization philosophy advocated by writers such as John Zerzan, Bob Black and Fredy Perlman.

The Direct Action Movement was formed in 1979, when the one remaining SWF branch, along with other smaller anarchist groups, decided to form a new organisation of anarcho-syndicalists in Britain.[28] The DAM was highly involved in the Miners' Strike as well as a series of industrial disputes later in the 1980s, including the Ardbride dispute in Ardrossan, Scotland, involving a supplier to Laura Ashley, for which the DAM received international support. From 1988 in Scotland, then England and Wales, the DAM was active in opposing the Poll Tax.[29] In the early 1990s, DAM members set up the Despatch Industry Workers Union, which successfully organised workers for a number of inner-city courier firms.[30] The Solidarity Federation, also known by the abbreviation SolFed, is a federation of class struggle anarchists active in Britain. The organisation advocates a strategy of anarcho-syndicalism as a method of abolishing capitalism and the state. In 1994 it adopted its current name, having previously been the Direct Action Movement since 1979, and before that the Syndicalist Workers' Federation since 1950. In March 1994, DAM changed its name to the Solidarity Federation. Presently, the Solidarity Federation publishes the quarterly magazine Direct Action (presently on hiatus) and the newspaper Catalyst. Several locals and networks also publish their own newsletters. Along with the Anarchist Federation it is one of the two national anarchist federations active in the UK at the present time.

The Anarchist Federation (AF) is a federation of anarcho-communists in Great Britain and Ireland. The Federation was founded as the Anarchist Communist Federation in March 1986 by the Anarchist Communist Discussion Group, which had coalesced around two anarcho-communists who had returned from France and began selling the pamphlets of the defunct Libertarian Communist Group tendency, and members of Syndicalist Fight. The group aimed to provide an anarchist intervention into working class struggles such as the Miners' Strike, and was closely involved with the Anti-Poll Tax community-based campaign at the end of the 1980s and unemployed struggles through the Groundswell network of claimants' action groups. There is also a student membership, of whom many, including non-student members were involved in the series of university occupations that began in the beginning of 2009 and swept across British universities in opposition to the Gaza War as well as the 2010 Student movement against reforms in further education. Organise! is the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.It is published in order to develop anarchist communist ideas and aims to provide a clear anarchist viewpoint on contemporary issues and to initiate debate on ideas not normally covered in agitational papers. The AF aims to produce Organise! twice a year and to meet this target, the AF positively solicits contributions from its readers. The Anarchist Federation is a member organisation of the Anarchist International of Anarchist Federations (IAF-IFA),[31] but also has its own secretariat responsible for regions of the world that do not have IAF-IFA members. The principles of work within IFA are that of federalism, free arrangement and mutual aid. To improve co-ordination and communication within IFA, as well as to provide an open contact address for the public and other anarchist groups and organisations, an International Secretariat (C.R.I.F.A. - Commission of Relations of the International of Anarchist Federations) was set up. CRIFA irregularly rotates among the IFA federations. It is currently based with the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI). It changed its name to the Anarchist Federation[32] in the late 1990s, though advocacy of Anarchist communism remains at the centre of its politics. Despite this, there are a number of members who do not identify specifically as anarchist-communists, but are libertarian socialists, council communists and so forth.[citation needed] The Anarchist Federation places itself amongst a continually developing current of autonomous working class struggle. Important influences on the Anarchist Federation's politics include The Organisational Platform of Libertarian Communists, the Manifesto of Libertarian Communism, Solidarity and the anarchist communist currents within the Spanish, Russian and Ukrainian Revolutions. The Anarchist Federation continues this tradition of agitation within the workplace and community, rather than attempting to gain prominent bureaucratic positions in trade unions, local councils and other institutions, unlike a number of socialist and communist parties and groups. It promotes grassroots direct activism against the state and capitalism and is run in a horizontalist manner.

In July 2011 the Metropolitan Police Service called for anti-anarchist whistleblowers stating: "Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy. Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police."[33] However, they later retracted this statement.[citation needed]


See also


  1. "William Godwin". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Dictionary of the History of Ideas – ANARCHISM
  3. "Anarchism", Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2006 (UK version).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Mark Philip (2006-05-20). "William Godwin". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Everhart, Robert B. The Public School Monopoly: A Critical Analysis of Education and the State in American Society. Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research, 1982. p. 115.
  6. Adams, Ian. Political Ideology Today. Manchester University Press, 2001. p. 116.
  7. Godwin, William (1796) [1793]. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners. G.G. and J. Robinson. OCLC 2340417.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Beer, A History of British Socialism, vol. 2, pg. 256.
  9. Marx-Engels Collected Works: Volume 48. New York: International Publishers, 2001; pg. 538, fn. 95.
  10. Frederick Engels to Friedrich Sorge, 4 June 1887. Reprinted in Marx-Engles Collected Works: Volume 48, pg. 70.
  11. Marx-Engels Collected Works: Vol. 48, pg. 611, fn. 642.
  12. Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, pg. 44.
  13. "Ethel Mannin - Gilbert Turner Papers, 1922-1981". Emory University, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Retrieved 19 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Twentieth century authors, a biographical dictionary of modern literature, edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft; (Third Edition). New York, The H.W. Wilson Company, 1950 (p.905-6)
  15. Robert Graham, Anarchism Volume Two: The Anarchist Current (1939-2006). Black Rose Books, 2009 ISBN 1551643103, (p.72-5).
  16. George Orwell at Home pp 71-72 Freedom Press (1998)
  17. Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (eds.). The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose (1945-1950) (Penguin)
  18. Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations'. United Kingdom: Pinter Publishers. 2000. ISBN 978-1855672642.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Anglia Ruskin University
  20. 20.0 20.1 Rayner, Claire (28 March 2000). "News: Obituaries: Alex Comfort". London: The Guardian. Archived from the original on 18 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-23. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. For discussions of Comfort's political views, see Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (1992) by Peter Marshall, and Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (2006) by David Goodway.
  22. Carissa Honeywell, A British Anarchist Tradition: Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Colin Ward, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011 ISBN 1441190171 (p.112).
  23. Complete Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell volume II, pg. 294-303
  24. Martin, Douglas (20 March 2000). "Alex Comfort, 80, Dies; a Multifaceted Man Best Known for Writing 'The Joy of Sex'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Keeley, Graham (21 May 2011). "Anarchist jailed over plot to kill Franco fights to clear name". The Times. London. Retrieved 21 May 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. [1]
  27. (here on BBC News after the demonstrations)
  29. Meltzer, Albert (2001). I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels. United Kingdom: AK Press. ISBN 978-1873176931.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "IAF-IFA membership of the AF".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. "ACF - the first ten years".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Booth, Robert (31 July 2011). "Anarchists should be reported, advises Westminster anti-terror police". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 1 February 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • H. Gustav Klaus and Stephen Knight (2005) To Hell with Culture: Anarchism and Twentieth-Century British Literature. University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1898-3
  • David Goodway (2006) Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward. Liverpool University Press. 2006 ISBN 1-84631-025-3
  • John Quail (1978) The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of the British Anarchists. London: Paladin
  • George McKay (1996) Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-260-7.
  • George McKay, ed. (1998) DiY Culture: Party & Protest in Nineties Britain. London: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-028-0.
  • Benjamin Franks, (2006) Rebel Alliances: The Means and Ends of Contemporary British Anarchisms. Edinburgh. AK Press. ISBN 1904859402