Anarchist Seeds Beneath The Snow; Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward.
By David Goodway
Liverpool University Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Joey Cain
The history of the British anarchist movement has been little studied or appreciated outside of the movement itself. David Goodway's book, Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow, should go a long way towards rectifying this blind spot in established labour and political history. His broad ranging erudition combined with a penetrating understanding of the subject matter has produced a fascinating, highly readable history. Its epic sweep explores anarchist ideas in the work of eleven of Britain's native born writers stretching from Willaim Morris in the 1880s down to Colin Ward at the start of the twenty first century. Along the way he provides a valuable cultural history of anarchist thought in Britain and places the actions and ideas of these writers in their historical and political context.
And what a gathering of writers he has woven into his text! Starting with Morris we move through Edward Carpenter, Oscar Wilde, John Cowper Powys, George Orwell, Herbert Read, Aldous Huxley, Alex Comfort, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Pallis and finally Colin Ward. They were chosen because of their "merit, for the importance or interest of their work and careers." His goal is to demonstrate that "these eleven writers constitute a submerged but creative and increasingly relevant current of social and political theory and practice, an alternative, left-libertarian tradition." The tradition he is articulating encompasses a diverse range of manifestations including individualist, collectivist, communist, revolutionary syndicalist and both the acceptance and rejection of private property, to name a few. What unites these strands into a unified political program is "unremitting hostility to the State and parliamentarianism, employment of direct action, as a means of attaining desired goals, and organizing through co-operative associations, built and federated from the bottom upwards." He sees as anarchistic/libertarian, "but not necessarily ‘anarchist' such features as autonomy, direct action, self-management and workers control, decentralization, opposition to war, sustainability and environmentalism."
Goodway situates the historic anarchist movement as a workers movement that began in the 1860s in much of the industrialized world but not beginning in Britain until the great socialist revival and activism of the 1880s. After exploring Morris' life and the anarchistic elements in his work and outlining the fortunes of the movement down to the 1930s, when he sees it disappearing for decades, Goodway moves on to Edward Carpenter.
Sketching a condensed but effective history of Carpenter's life, the author follows suit with most contemporary writers on Carpenter in identifying his homosexuality as the motivating element in the evolution of his life and thinking. The major themes and concerns of Carpenter's work are represented: the critiques of civilization and modern science, the great sexual libertarian and liberator, the mystic, the movement into vegetarianism, dress reform and the Simplification of life: "Of the three men who inspired English agrarianism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was Carpenter alone, not Ruskin or Morris, who provided the practical example."
Carpenter's influences on such folks as Arts and Crafts designer C.R Ashbury and novelist E.M. Foster are recounted and his involvement with the pioneer Socialist organizations, the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, are reviewed along with his connection to the Fellowship of the New Life.
Where Goodway really excels is in articulating Carpenter's broadly inclusive vision of Socialism: "Carpenter was truly undoctrinaire and, ... supported all sections of the labour movement and all trends within it; so over a period of forty years, he welcomed equally syndicalism and Guild Socialism, and always maintained good relations with the anarchists: ‘Certainly... I stick up for the Fabians and the Trade Unions just as I do for the anarchist[s].... What can be more obvious? We are all traveling along the same road."
Goodway demonstrates that Carpenter did more than just 'stick up for the Anarchists", he was strongly inclined toward Anarchism. While in the cause of the "larger" Socialism he supported labour's parliamentarian aspirations and was "the sage and prophet" of the early Labour Party , especially the Independent Labour Party, at the core of his politics he was doubtful about "the regulative and governmental principle" and continuously envisioned a Socialism that placed greater faith in the "voluntary principle". Carpenter did criticize what he saw as the over emphasis placed on the role of "revolutionary violence" by some elements of the movement and yet came to the defense of the "Walsall Anarchists" after they were charged with building and providing bombs. Ultimately Carpenter's relations with Anarchism and parliamentarianism changed and evolved over the years depending on the given social situation and what tendencies were in the ascendancy in the two movements. When the violent, illegalist element was in the ascendancy in anarchism the early 1890s, Carpenter became supportive of the parlimentarianism of the ILP. When that lead to a bureaucratization of Labour politics and a retreat from a voluntary, non-governmental social ideal, he embraced the anti-parliamentarianism of syndicalism.
The Carpenter chapter also discusses the anarchist elements of Civilization, It's Cause and Cure and it's broad influence on the political discourse of the time and concludes with a short look at Carpenter's prominence (or lack of it) from the 1920s to today.
While I have focused this review on Anarchist Seeds Beneath The Snow's view of Carpenter, I found the discussions on the other authors to be just as insightful and informative. I have a new admiration and interest in John Cowper Powys' work after reading Goodway's account of him. And he has brought back for reconsideration a personal favorite of mine, Christopher Pallis, better known as Maurice Brinton, author of the extremely influential 1970s books The Irrational In Politics and The Bolsheviks and Workers Control 1917-1921: The State and Counter Revolution. Just as importantly, Goodway has achieved his goal to outline and make the case for the left-libertarian tradition and it importance in the history of British social and political thought.