George Barrett: Direct Action v. Parliamentarianism

Freedom Press in England has recently published a collection of essays on anarchism by George Barrett (1888-1917), Our Masters Are Helpless, edited by Iain McKay. Barrett wrote for the London based anarchist paper, Freedom, and published his own paper, The Anarchist, and several pamphlets on anarchism. Two of his best known pamphlets were the posthumously published Objections to Anarchism (Freedom Press, 1921) and The Anarchist Revolution (Freedom Press, 1920). Here I reproduce his answer from Objections to Anarchism about why Parliament cannot be used to achieve a social revolution, and the section on direct action from The Anarchist Revolution, in which Barrett sets forth the anarchist alternative to parliamentary (or electoral) methods. Both topics retain their relevance today, particularly with respect to the current political debacle in Britain regarding its exit from the European Union and Boris Johnson’s attempts to usurp the British Parliament.

Objections to Anarchism No. 2

The House of Commons and the Law have been used by the present dominant class to gain their ends; why cannot they be used by us to gain ours?

This question is based upon an extraordinary misunderstanding. It seems to be taken for granted that Capitalism and the workers’ movement both have the same end in view. If this were so, they might perhaps use the same means; but as the capitalist is out to perfect his system of exploitation and government, whilst the worker is out for emancipation and liberty, naturally the same means cannot be employed for both purposes. This surely answers the question sufficiently so far as it is a definite question. In so far, however, as it contains the vague suggestion that government is the agent of reform, progress, and revolution, it touches the very point upon which Anarchists differ from all political parties. It is worthwhile, then, to examine the suggestion a little more closely.

It is thought by the enthusiastic politicians that once they can capture government, then from their position of power they would be able very quickly to mould society into the desired shape. Pass ideal laws, they think, and the ideal society would be the result. How simple, is it not? We should thus get the Revolution on the terms promised us by the wonderful Blatchford — “without bloodshed, and without losing a day’s work,” But, alas! the short cut to the Golden Age is an illusion. In the first place, any form of society shaped by law is not ideal. In the second place, law cannot shape society; indeed, rather the reverse is true. It is this second point which is all-important.

Those who understand the forces behind progress will see the law limping along in the rear, and never succeeding in keeping up with the progress made by the people; always, in fact, resisting any advance, always trying to start reaction, but in the long run always having to give way and allow more and more liberty. Even the champions of government recognise this when they want to make a drastic change, and then they throw aside the pretence of the law and turn to revolutionary methods.

The present ruling class, who are supposed to be a living proof that the Government can do anything, are in themselves quite candid in the admission that it can do very little. Whoever will study their rise to power will find that to get there they preach in theory, and establish in fact, the principle of resistance to the law. Indeed, curious as it may seem, it is a fact that immediately after the Revolution it was declared seditious to preach against resistance to law, just as today it is seditious to speak in favour of it.

To sum up, then, if there was any logic in the question, which there is not, we might restate it thus: “Since the present dominant class were unable to gain their ends by use of the House of Commons and the Law, why should we hope to gain ours by them?”

Direct Action

To make it quite clear what is meant by the expression Direct Action, let us take an illustration. Not very many years ago, if there was a great national calamity, such as an outbreak of plague, the religious people used to declare that the only remedy was for us as a nation to pray that God might remove his curse. These good people were very much shocked when scientists came along and began taking merely sanitary precautions to stamp out the disease. The first was the indirect method: prayers were sent up to heaven so that God might send down his good influence on the plague. This was a very indirect route to reach a disease which was, so to speak, next door. The scientist attended to the disease itself, studied its nature, and tried to find a means of stamping it out. This was direct action.

To-day in very much the same way the people are divided with two methods. In their factories and homes they find themselves discontented, and some of them propose to influence the chief of society — the Parliament — so that it will exercise its power to put things right. These in their turn are shocked when advanced thinkers come along and declare that the way to get a remedy is to study the nature of the trouble and apply the cure directly to it. The former believe in the indirect or legislative method, for it is a long way from home to Westminster and back home again. The latter are the direct actionists, and they recognise that if anyone is going to put the factories in order, it will be the workers who spend their lives in them, and not the politicians.

Imagine the utter absurdity of a group of politicians sitting in the House of Commons earnestly discussing the welfare of the people. While they are doing so, are there not countless bakers, builders, and tailors walking about the streets, unemployed, and cut off, by the laws which these same politicians have passed, from the means of production, machinery, and tools with which they might produce what they need. To break down the laws and allow these people to produce what is necessary for their welfare, on equal terms with the other workers, is the way to abolish poverty.

It is clear that, if we are to rid ourselves of the troubles that best us at present, we must organise an entirely new system of wealth distribution. I do not mean by this that we must divide up, but I mean that the wealth which is produced must be stopped from flowing to the rich man who produces nothing; the stream must be diverted so that it will come to the producer.

But who is it that distributes the wealth? Is it the politician? Certainly not; as a matter of fact, it is the transport workers. If, then, the workers who produce want an alteration in the present distribution, to whom must they apply? To their comrades, the transport workers, and not to the politicians, who have nothing to do with the matter. Similarly when better conditions are needed in the factories — larger sheds, better floors, and more efficient lighting and ventilation — who are the only people capable of doing this? It is the workers who need these reforms, and the workers who can carry them out. The task before the worker to-day is as it has been in the past: the slave class must rid itself of the dictating class — i.e., of those in authority.

Such is the simple logic of the Direct Actionist, and it is already clear how it necessarily leads to the Anarchist Revolution. We must, however, be careful how we follow this principle — not that we fear being taken too far, but lest it does not take us far enough. The expression has been used so much in contradistinction to legislation, that any one who throws a brick through a window is generally supposed to be a Direct Actionist. He may be and he may not.

To be logical and true to the real meaning of the term, every act should, of course, be on the direct road towards the desired end — in our case, the Social Revolution. Sometimes it is difficult to be entirely consistent, but it is nevertheless of the utmost importance that there should be at least a minority of the workers who understand what is the direct road, so that every skirmish may be made by them a step towards the final overthrow of Capitalism.

At the risk of repeating myself, then, let me try to state the position very clearly. We have two classes — the governing, ruling, and possessing people on the one hand, and those governed and without property on the other; in a word, a master class and a slave class.

When this slave class becomes discontented and restive, it has several courses to consider before deciding which will give better conditions. It may be argued:

  1. That since the present masters do not give enough of the good things of life, these must be turned out and a new set selected from among the slave class; or
  2. That since the slave class is composed of the producers, and the master class is, therefore, dependent on it, the former is clearly in a position to force the masters to give them more food and everything that may be desired; or
  3. That since the slave class is the producer of all that is necessary for life, there is no need to either ask or demand anything from the master class. The slave class need simply to cut off supplies to the masters and start feeding themselves.

The first of these arguments, it will be seen, is that of the politicians; and it may be dismissed without further comment, since, as will be understood after what has been already said, it obviously misses the point. It is not a question of who shall be master, but it is a matter of the essential relationship between master and slave, quite irrespective of who either of them may be.

The second argument is that of the non-Parliamentary but non-Revolutionary Trade Unionist. It is right in that it recognises where lies the true power of the workers in their fight against the capitalists, but it is wrong in that it proposes no change in the relationship between these two.

If the slave class is to be better housed, fed, and clothed from the masters’ store, it means that the slaves will become more and more completely owned by the masters. It is not revolutionary, because it proposes to retain master and slave, and merely attempts to better the conditions of the latter.

The third argument is, of course, that of the revolutionist. It agrees with the second as to the weapon to be used, but it says that the task before the workers is to feed, house, clothe, and educate themselves, and not to spend their energies in making better masters of the capitalists.

To cut off supplies to the capitalist and to retain what is produced for the workers are the main points of the revolutionary fight.

In every industrial dispute there are really two, and only two, essentials. On the one hand are the factories, warehouses, railways, mines, etc., which may be termed industrial property; on the other, the workers. To unite these two is to accomplish the revolution; for with them will be built the new society.

The capitalist and master class in general can hold their position only so long as they can keep the workers outside the warehouses and factories, for within are the means of life, and the common people must be allowed to use these only on the strict understanding that they make profit and submit to the conditions dictated. To come out on strike, then, is merely rebellion, and is essentially not the revolution, however thoroughly it is done; to stay in and work in the condition of equality, free from the dictates of a useless master class, is the real object of the revolutionist.

Direct action, therefore, in this strictly revolutionary sense would mean the taking possession of the means of production and the necessities of life by the workers who have produced them, and the reorganisation of industry according to the principles of freedom.

The doctrine of Direct Action does not boast of bringing the workers easy salvation. It is, indeed, a recognition of the terribly simple fact that nothing can save us except our own intelligence and power. We, the workers, are the creative force, for is it not we who have produced all the food, clothing, and houses? Assuredly it is we who need them. What, then, has the politician to do with this? Nothing, absolutely nothing! What use is it to hand over to the master class all that we produce, and then keep up a continuous quarrel as to how much we shall be allowed back? Instead of this we have to stop supplies, reorganise our industries, not from above but from their source below, and see that in future all that is produced goes to the producer and not to the dominant class. This is the meaning of direct action, and it is Anarchism.

But, alas! it is easier to accomplish a revolution on paper with cold logic than it is to bring it about in industrial life. We have to fight the lack of understanding on the part of the worker and the craft of the politician ever at work to increase this; and in addition we have the certainty that the class in power will attempt to resist the change, with the only argument that remains on their side — brute force. While, therefore, it is important to understand that direct action properly applied means the actual “conquest of bread” and the taking possession of the factories, we must be content probably for some little while longer to use our weapon of direct action simply according to the second of the three arguments given above — that is, to demand better conditions from the capitalist class.

It is not, however, too much to hope that in the very near future the Anarchists will form a militant section of the workers, which will give to every great industrial rebellion the revolutionary character which is its true meaning. Worker as well as capitalist is beginning to recognise that a well-planned scheme for feeding the strikers is more than possible. Such a scheme would entail the capturing of the bakeries, and this is surely the first step of the revolution.

Beside this real problem, simple but great, how hollow and grotesque are the promises of the politicians. How absurd the idea of gaining liberty through the ballot-box. These hopeless government men, who talk with such sublime imbecility of feeding, housing, and clothing, only add insult to injury. The House they stand in to make their senseless speeches was built and furnished by the workers, and it is the workers who house and feed them.

And beyond our own doubt and hesitation, what, after all, stands in our way? Let us gain inspiration from the hopeless position of our foes. How helpless they are! Is not the policeman’s baton shaped by the worker, and his absurd uniform stitched by underpaid women? The soldier’s rifle is certainly not made by the master class — in every particular they are hopelessly our dependents. Every instrument of oppression is supplied to them by us, and we keep them alive by feeding them day by day. Surely, then, it is apparent that this change must come. Those above are powerless for good, or for evil; the revolution can be brought only by an upheaval from below — from the one vital section of society, the workers.

George Barrett

Ambrose Cuddon and the Origins of English Anarchism

In my book on the International Workingmen’s Association and the origins of the anarchist movement, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It,’ Ambrose Caston Cuddon (1790 – 1879) made a very brief appearance. He was part of the group of English workers who welcomed Bakunin back to Europe after his escape from Siberia, and he spoke at the 1862 London meeting between English and French workers that led to the founding of the International. I was therefore very happy to see that the latest issue of the Kate Sharpley Library Bulletin included a link to this article by Christoper Draper, where he provides much more biographical detail, demonstrating that Cuddon was likely the first working class anarchist activist in England.

Political Development

[The anarchist historian Max] Nettlau claimed, “the first Anarchist propagandist pamphlet published in England” appeared in October 1853 and accurately identified its anonymous author as Ambrose Caston Cuddon. Produced under the auspices of the “London Confederation of Rational Reformers”, founded two months earlier by Cuddon, and regarded by Nettlau as, “perhaps the first English Anarchist group”.

By then Cuddon had spent over a decade agitating within and without various radical movements before arriving at an anarchist platform. Two prominent threads in his development through the 1830’s and 1840’s were Owenite Socialism and Chartism. Cuddon’s involvement with the former peaked with his 1841 appointment to Secretaryship of the HCS [Robert Owen’s “Home Colonisation Society] whose programme he formally advocated in a leaflet published that year; “A sound education and permanent beneficial employment cannot be given under the present competitive arrangements of society; and the best mode of securing these benefits to the population will be by the establishment of SELF-SUPPORTING HOME COLONIES”. However throughout the forties the HCS grew more centralised, less democratic and ever more dominated by Owen himself. Cuddon correspondingly developed an increasingly radical perception of relations between legislators, capital, labour and freedom.

Keen to promote open discussion of social and radical issues, in 1846 Cuddon was amongst a mixed group of artisans and intellectuals that established London’s Whittington Club. Cuddon escaped the State’s repressive measures of 1848 but supported those less fortunate. In July 1851 Ambrose addressed a large protest meeting at the Dog & Duck Tavern, Soho called to establish a subscription fund to support and defend imprisoned and transported “victims of the spy system of the Whig government”.

Cuddon enthusiastically organised radical groups and meetings described by the press as an, “Attempted Revival of Chartism”. Voted into the chair at an influential gathering at the British Institution in November 1851, to loud cheers Ambrose “attributed all poverty and wretchedness in this country to bad government”. A few months later, at a March 1852 Soho meeting he was again voted into the chair and assured his audience that, “It was morally impossible they (Parliamentarians) would ever legislate for the benefit of the people. It was of far more importance that they should study the proper position and relative connexion of capital and labour than the speeches of ministers” (Northern Star, 6.3.1852).

The Prophet Josiah

 By 1853 Ambrose Cuddon was convinced workers must dispense with all government to secure freedom, equity and justice. Between March 1852 and March 1853 Cuddon had corresponded with Josiah Warren who’d exorcised Cuddon’s last vestiges of O’Brienite faith in land nationalisation with a letter explaining, “Of course with us there can be no such thing as a nation or state. There should only be the family of mankind – each individual managing his own affairs supremely and absolutely, but equitably, with his fellow man. The ownership of the soil for the sake of order and harmony, for the sake of disposing with legislation, must be absolute in the individual, guaranteed by a public sense of justice, the purchases and sales of it being conducted upon the cost principle, which renumerates only the labor in the transaction”.

This “labor cost principle” was a fundamental building block of Warren’s mutualist anarchism demonstrated in the practical success of his “Time Store” where goods were priced solely in terms of the amount of worker-time that went into producing them. Josiah was ideally placed to lead Ambrose from the failed dreams of Owenism, avoiding the rocks of O’Brienite nationalisation onto the sunlit uplands of practical, demonstrable anarchism. Warren was himself a former disciple of Robert Owen who’d learnt from his mistakes. As a member of Owen’s 1825-7 New Harmony experiment in communalism Warren had realised the venture failed because of Owen’s fixation on community at the cost of individual needs. He concluded that the suppression of the individual exacerbated rather than removed social conflict and he’d resolved to come up with a scheme that better balanced individual and communal needs.

From NRL to LCRR

Inspired and emboldened by Warren’s ideas and practical demonstrations in August 1853 Ambrose Caston Cuddon led a small group of libertarian minded “private individuals of the middle and working classes” out of Bronterre O’Brien’s National Reform League to form the London Confederation of Rational Reformers (LCRR). Cuddon and A M Dickey served as Joint Secretaries and the group’s libertarian philosophy was contained in a four page “outline of principles” and explained in a detailed tract, “A Contribution Towards the Elucidation of the Science of Society”, both published before the year end. It is the latter document that Nettlau identifies as, “the first Anarchist propaganda pamphlet published in England” and recognises as CUDDON’s handiwork. Labelled “fundamentally individualist” by Peter Ryley this LCRR statement evidences its Warrenite influence, “Liberty– the sovereignty of the individual – is the highest good of life, for which no artificial substitute, however ingeniously disguised, can ever be made an adequate compensation”.

Class Conscious Individualism

 Cuddon’s essentially anarchist LCRR vision didn’t prompt him to embrace Utopianism but to support advanced alternatives alongside short term labour struggles. At a January 1854 “Trades Conference” organised to discuss “Strikes and Lockouts” and supposedly open to all, “Mr Cuddon of Camden Town, was of the opinion that combinations were objectionable, though necessary; and they were necessary because they were produced by a false and unjust system – the present competition system of trade” but the gathering refused to debate fundamental flaws in the existing system merely the “indiscipline” of labour for it was a “packed” gathering chaired by Lord Robert Grosvenor. As the meeting concluded, Cuddon’s joint LCRR Secretary, “Mr Dickey handed in a protest, amidst laughter and loud cries of NO from the meeting generally; which the Chairman declined to receive”.

The LCRR responded with an open letter published in the press alongside the original 3-part protest. It’s essential reading as it evidences the class conscious dimension of Cuddon’s anarchism. The LCRR protest –

“1. Because the working classes seem not to be really represented at this meeting, whilst it is composed of the representatives of the master and capitalist classes, several of the speakers being members of Parliament, barristers and others, who to my own knowledge do not possess the confidence of the people who are directly inimical to their rights and interests.

2. Because the questions are cunningly deprived of all point – are a delusion; and whether carried one way or the other are equally useless or adverse to the cause of the suffering people.

3. Because it seems to me to be a suicidal act for any honest delegate to allow himself to be entrapped into a decision that hereafter may be used to prejudice the rights and interests of the working classes.”

Cuddon’s “sovereignty of the individual” should be read as a primary, essential ingredient of an equitable, egalitarian anarchist society NOT a macho assertion of rampant capitalist individualism with the Devil left to take the hindmost. He aimed to revolutionise society not simply stimulate individual or communal experiments and proposed revolutionary ideas in every available forum. In July 1855 Cuddon assured a gathering at London’s Freemasons’ Tavern, “it was an absurdity to talk of ever remedying the existing evils by mere administrative reform…he had no confidence in the mercantile and monied (sic) classes, who were a new aristocracy more tyrannical than the older one”.

Modern Times

 Josiah Warren recognised Cuddon as a fellow spirit and invited him to America. In 1857 Ambrose visited Warren at “Modern Times” and was much impressed by the whole enterprise. From Long Island CUDDON wrote, “They (the principles) are comprehensive and of universal application. They cover the whole ground of social economy, extending into all the ramifications of life…they introduce real science with all its requirements into a branch of knowledge generally abandoned to speculative reasoning or unsuspecting credulity.”

 The Inherent Evils of Government

 In the autumn of 1858 Cuddon composed an “Appendix” for Edmund Burke’s, “A Vindication of Natural Society” (1750) which was then republished as “The Inherent Evils of All State Governments demonstrated”. The cover carried Burke’s bold proclamation, “In vain you tell me that artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with its abuse: the thing itself is the abuse!” Cuddon’s appendix opens, “Although Burke, in the preceding Essay has proved that he was fully convinced of the evil consequences of political institutions (or state-craft) upon the happiness of a people, he has not suggested any mode by which such institutions could be abrogated, and Natural Society established. We will endeavour to show how this deficiency could be supplied…” and over the next 18 pages, Ambrose proceeded to do just that.

A Workers’ International

 Aged 71, in February 1861 Cuddon launched a new monthly journal, The Cosmopolitan Review – a Political, Social, Philosophical and Literary Magazine which a century later inspired the title of Albert Meltzer’s magazine. Cuddon’s paper was a forum for discussion of the most advanced ideas of the age. Although generally positively received it didn’t gain universal Cuddonlamation with the South London Chronicle complaining, “The worst article in our opinion is Radical Reform – What is It? by Henry H Wiltshire, whom we should suppose to be an ambitious youth, who just thinks he can write. The article reads like a speech and is diffuse enough to suit the most childish intellect…”

Nevertheless, as James Martin observes, “Cuddon continued to head up the literary front in the London area, publishing articles with a strong anarchist flavour in the Cosmopolitan Review and the Working Man throughout most of 1861-2.” In January 1862 Ambrose chaired a committee welcoming Michael Bakunin to London, following his escape from Siberia, at a reception organised by Alexander Herzen.

In October Cuddon led a welcoming committee of English workers in hosting a reception at Freemasons Hall for a group of about seventy French workers who’d come to London to attend the World’s Fair. A prominent member of the French delegation who’d taken part in the 1848 revolution was [Henri] Tolain who although not actually an anarchist was much influenced by the ideas of Proudhon and actively involved in a variety of working-class mutual aid societies. Cuddon addressed the gathering which, for the first time, proposed the idea of forming an International Workingmen’s Association.

The following year, Josiah Warren published, True Civilization – Being the result and conclusions of thirty-nine years laboring in the study and experiments in civilization as it is and in different enterprises for reconstruction. In the concluding section Warren invited reader’s opinions on his findings, directing correspondents to either himself or, “A C Cuddon, No. 7 Arthur’s Grove, Kentish Town, London, England”.

The True Order and Science of Society

At the end of the decade Cuddon supported the revived Republican movement, contributing both correspondence and money to The Republican newspaper, despite his own increasingly straightened circumstances. Cuddon had by then worked up his political programme into a series of twelve lectures which in 1871 he advertised as, Ready for Publication – A Familiar Treatise on the True Order and Science of Society but sadly, as he subsequently confided to Josiah Warren, “I could not afford to publish” but Ambrose assured Josiah that although he was then 82 he was enjoying life as much as ever. The following year (1874) Cuddon met and impressed Warren’s young protégé, Benjamin Tucker, during his visit to Europe.

Cuddon never did manage to get his comprehensive lecture series published although an undated (c1875?) six page section entitled, What is Education? was by some curious circumstance published and printed in Dunedin, New Zealand by “Mills, Dick & Co”. This pamphlet reveals an anarchism couched, in part, in uncomfortably Catholic language that nonetheless combines a searingly Godwinian indictment of conventional “education” with Marxist materialist analysis; “this dictatorial teaching is not education; at best, it is but instruction, putting into the mind erroneous notions or crochets which interested men or parties of men in assumed and unjust authority may wish toprevail for their own party purposes and views, that they may live in ease and affluence out of the labor of the industrious millions without themselves labouring at all.”

Cuddon’s alternative implicitly looked back to Rousseau and Godwin and forward to Kropotkin and Tolstoy. Ambrose claims real education supports the natural intellectual development of every human being for, “The kingdom of God is within you”. The learner is the subject not the object of real education, not a cistern to be filled, instead, “opening up its own fountain, to draw out from its own resources the immortal spirit that is there – to develop our consciousness and bring into action the intellectual conceptions, the instincts and intuitions of our inward selves, the pure and unperverted tastes, inclinations, propensities and powers of human nature”.

The Roots of English Anarchy

Having outlived two wives, Ambrose Caston Cuddon died at home, 5 Leigh Terrace, Chaucer Road, Acton, West London on 15th April 1879, aged 89. His estate, valued at “less than £200”, was administered by his married daughter Jemima Remington who’d cared for him at home in his final years. Of Ambrose’s other three children, Anna Maria Dugdale had emigrated to America where CUDDON visited her during his trip to meet Josiah Warren. Anna’s son was the pioneering American sociologist, Richard Louis Dugdale (1837-83).

One of Ambrose’s two sons, John (1821-1875) was a devout Catholic who lived in a Belgian monastery, whilst the other, Ambrose junior, died in 1887 in Islington Workhouse. When Henry Seymour boosted England’s embryonic movement in 1885 with publication of The Anarchist he didn’t acknowledge his debt to Cuddon but if you examine the back page of issue two, alongside adverts for Proudhon’s “What is Property?” and Bakunin’s “God and the State” is another for “The Inherent Evils of All State Governments Demonstrated” which is Burke’s “A Vindication of Natural Society” supplemented by Cuddon’s anonymous 18-page appendix. This booklet was advertised and distributed as part of Seymour’s “The Revolutionary Library” for years. On the paper’s demise, further reprints, sales and distribution were taken over and continued by Freedom until well into the twentieth century.

English anarchism has too often been treated as a virgin birth precipitated by the arrival of European anarchists in the 1880’s. Ambrose Caston Cuddon didn’t have the revolutionary dynamism of Johann Most or the charisma and scholarship of Kropotkin but his many decades of political activism conveyed elements of Owenism, Socialism, Chartism, Republicanism along with Warrenite anarchism into an emergent English movement. Nettlau’s identification of Ambrose Caston Cuddon as the First English Anarchist, seems fairly established but there’s far more to be done to unearth and untangle other personal, practical and ideological roots of English anarchism. Nettlau’s pioneering 1905 paper kicked off the process and I trust this modest article might prompt more comrades to get the shovel out of the shed and dig down into early English anarchist history.

Christopher Draper (January 2018)