The Emergence of the New Anarchism: Herbert Read

Herbert Read (1893-1968)

Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, opens with excerpts from Herbert Read’s 1940 essay, “The Philosophy of Anarchism.” Read had declared himself in favour of anarchism in his 1938 publication, Poetry and Anarchism, with which I closed Volume One of the Anarchism anthology.  There he wrote that  he sought to “balance anarchism with surrealism, reason with romanticism, the understanding with the imagination, function with freedom.” Read was under no illusions regarding how people would react to his endorsement of anarchism.  At the time, the world’s various anarchist movements were in eclipse, and most radical intellectuals supported the Soviet Union with its Marxist ideology.  It was the era of “Popular Fronts” against Fascism, which the Stalinist Communists used to co-opt other forces on the left, resulting in the further isolation of the anarchists, their inveterate foes and frequent victims (see Chapter 18 of Volume One, “The Russian Revolution”).

Herbert Read (1893-1968) had served in the First World War, which helped turn him into a pacifist.  By 1938, he was a noted poet, essayist and art critic. In the 1930s, he helped introduce Surrealism to an English audience. After the Second World War, he did the same for existentialism, the philosophy that was being popularized in France by people like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He was current with the latest  intellectual and artistic trends, including Freudian psychoanalysis, which helped to inform his approach to anarchism, art and education. Read was one of a few better known intellectuals at the time who expressed anarchist ideas in a contemporary idiom, helping to pave the way for the remarkable resurgence of anarchism that surprised many, including some anarchists, in the 1960s. Other noteworthy contributors to this anarchist renaissance were Paul Goodman and Dwight Macdonald in the United States, Marie Louise Berneri, Alex Comfort and George Woodcock in England, and Giancarlo de Carlo in Italy. I have included extensive selections from all of these writers in Volume Two of the Anarchism anthology.

Not all anarchists were enamoured with these new currents in anarchist theory. Anarchists who took a “class struggle” approach, which emphasized the revolutionary role of the working class and the need for anarchists to take part in working class struggles, such as the Impulso group in Italy, denounced the “new” anarchism as counter-revolutionary, referring to it as “resistencialism,” because writers like Read had purportedly abandoned any hope for a successful social revolution and instead advocated resistance to authority, rather than its abolition (Anarchism, Volume Two, Selection 38).

Read, however, had not abandoned the idea of a social revolution. He simply conceived of it in broader terms, and distinguished it from more conventional conceptions of revolution by reviving Max Stirner’s (Volume One, Selection 11) distinction between revolution and insurrection. A revolution is “an exchange of political institutions.” An insurrection “aims at getting rid of these political institutions altogether.” Consequently,  he looked forward to a “spontaneous and universal insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 1), but discarded “the romantic conception of anarchism — conspiracy, assassination, citizen armies, the barricades. All that kind of futile agitation has long been obsolete: but it was finally blown into oblivion by the atomic bomb.” Today, “action must be piecemeal, non-violent, insidious and universally pervasive” (Volume Two, Selection 36).

Defining the measure of progress as “the degree of differentiation in society” (Volume Two, Selection 1), Read sought to create an organic society in which everyone is free to develop and express their unique talents and abilities, bringing forth “the artist latent within each one of us” (Volume Two, Selection 19). Arguing that “real politics are local politics,” Read proposed a system of direct democracy based  on functional and communal groups federated with each other, with their activities being coordinated by ad hoc delegates who are never separated from their “natural productive” functions (Volume One, Selection 130).

When Murray Bookchin started drawing the connections between anarchism and ecology in the 1960s, he cited Read as one of his inspirations (Volume Two, Selection 48). Read’s emphasis on local politics can also be found in Bookchin’s writings, in his concept of “libertarian municipalism.” Bookchin’s distinction between a libertarian politics of directly democratic community assemblies and the bureaucratic authoritarianism of the state can therefore be found in Read’s earlier writings.

In the following excerpts from Read’s 1947 BBC lecture, “Neither Liberalism Nor Communism,” he further develops his conception of anarchism as an alternative kind of politics without the state, emphasizing, as Bookchin did later, the insight of the ancient Greek philosophers that a truly democratic politics requires decentralization and human-scale.

Herbert Read: Neither Liberalism Nor Communism (1947)

It has always been recognized since the time of the Greek philosophers that the practicability of a free democracy was somehow bound up with the question of size — that democracy would only work within some restricted unit  such as the city-state. This was the conclusion of Plato and Aristotle in the ancient world, and their view has been supported in modern times by great political philosophers like Rousseau, Proudhon, Burckhardt and Kropotkin.

Based on this realization, a political philosophy has arisen which opposes the whole conception of the State. This theory, which would abolish the State, or reduce it to insignificance, is sometimes known as distributivism, sometimes as syndicalism, sometimes as guild socialism, but in its purest and most intransigent form it is called anarchism. Anarchism, as the Greek roots of the word indicate, is a political philosophy based on the idea that a social order is possible without rule, without dictation — even the dictation of a majority. Señor de Madariaga in his broadcast used the word as an antithesis to order, which is a common misuse of the word. Anarchism, indeed, seeks a very positive form of social order, but it is order reached by mutual agreement, not order imposed by unilateral dictation.

Though anarchism as a political doctrine has a respectable ancestry and has numbered great poets and philosophers like Godwin and Shelley, Tolstoy and Kropotkin among its adherents: though even now it is the professed faith of millions of people in Spain, in Italy and, alas, in Siberia: though it is the unformulated faith of millions more throughout the world — though, that is to say, it is one of the fundamental political doctrines of all time, it has never been given a place in our insular discussions of the political problems of our time.

Why this conspiracy of silence? I shall not spend any time on that interesting speculation, but I shall try, in the few minutes left to me, to give you the main principles of this distinct political theory

Believing that an expanding democracy leads to the delegation of authority to the creation of a governing class of politicians and bureaucrats — believing, in Acton’s words, that democracy tends to unity of power, and inevitably to the abuse of power by power-corrupted politicians, we who are anarchists seek to divide power, to decentralize government down to the localities in which it is exercised, so that every man has a sense of social responsibility and participates immediately in the conduct of his social order.

That is the political aspect of the theory. But it is equally in the economic field that democracy tends to unity of power — either the power of the capitalist monopoly or the power of the nationalized industry. We believe in the decentralization of industry and in the deproletarization of labour in the radical transformation and fragmentation of industry, so that in place of a few powerful trade combines and trade unions, we should have many small co-operative farms and workshops, administered directly by the workers themselves.

We believe, that is to say, in a federal or co-operative commonwealth, and we believe that this represents an ideal which is distinct from any offered by liberalism or communism. You may be inclined to dismiss it as an impracticable ideal, but within limits we can prove that it does work, in spite of unfavourable economic conditions and in the face of ruthless opposition from capitalists or communists. There have been many failures and many false starts, but these have been studied by the sociologists of the movement, and we know pretty accurately why certain co-operative communities have failed. We think we know for what reasons others have survived for a century or more — the Hutterites, a religious community was founded in Moravia in the 16th century and has carried out these principles successfully ever since. More remarkable, because operating within the economic structure of a modern society, are the highly successful co-operative agricultural communities established in Palestine, in Mexico and under the Farm Security Administration in the USA. At Valence in France a very successful experiment is taking place. In this case the co-operative community combines a highly skilled industry (the manufacture of watch-cases) with agriculture. I do not pretend that these experiments prove the case for an anarchist society. But they are highly significant tests of the human capacity for co-operative living — experiments which give us every confidence in the social and economic soundness of our wider proposals.

I am old enough to remember the days, before 1917, when people would say: Oh, socialism is all right in theory, but it could never be put into practice. Against such an argument socialists of that time could only put their faith — a faith which, we must admit, has been amply justified. Now on every side we meet the same argument against anarchism, against the co-operative commonwealth. No feudal baron could have believed in a world ruled by merchants and money-lenders; and in their turn these merchants and money-lenders refused for a long time to believe in the possibility of a world ruled by bureaucrats. I do not expect that many of my listeners can believe in a world in which the very idea of rule is abolished, in which we live by mutual aid, in which all thought of profit, all aggressive impulses, the concept of national sovereignty and the practice of armed imperialism, are forever absent. But when you consider the world in all its moral and economic chaos, when you see humanity fearfully transfixed by the threat of atomic warfare, can you for a moment believe that our civilization will be saved by any change less profound than that which I have described tonight?

Reprinted in A One-Man Manifesto and Other Writings for Freedom Press (London: Freedom Press, 1994), ed. David Goodway

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