Tuesday, July 8, 2014

David Goodway's "Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow": Book Review

This fills a need among not only literary critics but political historians. It's an in-depth survey of eleven British-centered thinkers, most of whom attempted to put their written theories and favored tracts into practice. They pursued their commitment to varieties of left-libertarian and anarchist thought--always as individuals, but more often sympathetic to a syndicalist-union or especially libertarian-communist (as in common grassroots management of the resources we hold in common and the means of sharing them equitably) system. Goodway burrows in, and his notes show a meticulous analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of not only the main subjects of each chapter, but of their colleagues, foes, and critics. He calls to task a lazy scholar, he cites a conflicting tidbit in one account that clashes with another's assertion, and his attention to such detail is astonishing. It proves how seriously he takes this enterprise.

Yet, it moves along, given the generally hefty subject matter and the need to cover biography, literary themes, political clashes, economic models, religious and secular contexts, and philosophical digressions of the past century, quite well. This is not light reading, not should it be. It's important as a guide to how crucial ideas energize thinkers and encourage autonomy. It instructs one in many currents of the British intellectual contributions to an encouragement of a truly liberal individual. He starts with William Morris and the guild socialism of his later career, 1880-1920, and then he moves into the impact of Edward Carpenter, the first of a few whom Goodway champions who are now generally neglected by mainstream culture. It's inspiring to find in Carpenter such an insistence on forging and forcing from one's circumstances the means for personal and social transformation. His gay identity means that much of his contribution is seen retroactively by critics since as filtered accordingly through his necessarily then-somewhat circumspect expression of his sexuality, but the larger concerns, as with Oscar Wilde, remain open to all. Goodway delves into Wilde's anarchist statements and by archival investigation uncovers fresh material for research, no easy feat for an author whom, as he notes, has been scoured by respectively gay rights advocates and English Lit scholars, both of whom, one suspects, often misread his admittedly scattershot essay on socialism.

Socialism often tugs away many who occupy left-libertarian niches here. Those who resisted the allure of the new Soviet and survived suspicion or Red Scares remain sometimes on the fringes, at least as far as the once-celebrated lecturer and author John Cowper Powys. He earns two chapters, and Goodway makes no apologies. Originally issued in 2006, this preceded by a year Morine Krissdóttir's biography (reviewed by me), but Powys' novels ("baggy monsters") and prolific career earn devoted attention herein. So does his individualist anarchism, which for this friend of Emma Goldman retreats from the political platforms erected by most in this collection, and whose works (as with Joyce, who Goodway finds shares Powys' predilection for what he called "ecstasies" and Joyce "epiphanies") can be an acquired taste. Powys demands articulation by a patient critic, as evading (not the first or last herein) facile summation. While he claimed to be a "philosophical anarchist" (as did Joyce, according to Kevin Birmingham's 2014 study [reviewed by me] of the impact of Ulysses on the regimes of state censorship), Powys to Goodway appears more of a sympathizer with a delayed encouragement of anarchism as an ideal but an impracticable one for the present time. Powys retreated into a personal stance of defiance. This is what earns Goodway's attention and deep focus.

Herbert Read's similarly long career was even more diverse, as art criticism channeled his talents along with literature and politics. WWI shifted this medal-winning recipient soon after into pacifism: "The whole war was fought for rhetoric--fought for historical phrases and actual misery, fought by politicians and generals and with human flesh and blood, fanned by false and artificially created mob passions..." (loc. 4508 qtd.). One finds when reading Read here a man able to express ideas precisely.

Pacifism gets a separate chapter, if a brief one. Akin to George Orwell here profiled, this stance stirred dissent and debate as another conflict loomed, predicted by the Spanish predicament of the anarchists, trapped in Catalonia between fascists and the Stalinists. Both men have been cursed by some who regard their shifts as untenable or signs of weakness, but Goodway while cognizant always of their inconsistencies allows each critic his fair chance for rebuttal, or clarification, over careers that found them taking on many complicated issues. Same for Aldous Huxley, and the uneven nature of his fiction and the wide range of his non-fiction gain him a central stage in this thorough presentation.

Best known for his Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort is lesser known at least abroad and nowadays for his own commitments to libertarian leftism. Along with Huxley and Bertrand Russell, his high-profile stances gained him notoriety as a proto-countercultural icon before the hippies ever marched. On the CND Committee of 100, Comfort's lifelong pacifism guided him into a recognition of anarchism as the best fit for him, a trajectory shared by many in this collection. He avers that "centralized power should be reduced to the practical minimum and individual responsibility increased to the practical maximum" (loc. 6133), a sensible ambition. I'd have liked to find out more about how his sexual affirmations aligned deeper with his libertarian vision, as this Goodway elides.

E.P. Thompson, Marxist historian of Morris and of the English working class, also worked for nuclear disarmament along with these figures. He also taught often, and to many. Like Comfort, he is taken to task for blind spots. While chastising Orwell for premature anti-Stalinism and the like, this pioneering scholar ignores the many points of agreement he had with Orwell and other dissidents.

Christopher Pallis, as with Comfort, combined a prestigious medical career with a parallel one. For Pallis (whose cousin Marco wrote a memorable travelogue of mountaineering turned spiritual quest in Peaks and Lamas, reviewed by me), he had to disguise his dogged libertarian socialism under pen names Martin Grainger and Maurice Brinton. The excerpts here felt stodgy, more "poli-sci" than his comrades, but it's amazing how he and Thompson and Comfort pursued dual research so prolifically. Here, Goodway observes: "All the ruling groups in society encourage the belief that decision taking and management are functions beyond the comprehension of ordinary people." (loc. 7118).

One problem with anarchism, which flourished 1860-1940 and then, beaten down by Bolshevism and fascism, sensationalized for its violent minority, suppressed by spies and infiltrators in capitalist societies, is that "its numerical weakness inhibits its intellectual strength." (loc. 7389) Even after its countercultural resurgence (part due to Situationists, part libertarian socialists), few thinkers since have applied it to practical rather than historical or theoretical analyses, and few workers apply their leisure to advancing its real-world manifestations, given the great obstacles to implementation.

But, the final subject shows how it can work around us. Colin Ward, whose Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction I have reviewed, gains an affectionate tribute. No surprise as the book "Talking Anarchy" combines the two men's conversations and concerns. Like busy Pallis and Comfort, Ward as an architect recycles (a verb Goodway often uses, as he is very alert to all his subjects' printed records, and how they overlap, clash, and contend) much of his writings, given a demanding career. But this chapter feels ultimately perfunctory. One waits for Ward to step in, as an engaging comrade.

Still, the closing section which channels anarchist theory into current currents, stays fluid. Goodway holds that "a society which organizes itself without authority" always exists, "like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism." (loc. 7469)  Recalling in this titular metaphor Gustav Landauer's vision, which guided Ward, Goodway finds an anarchist today widens the old thinkers' perspectives. It "is selective, it rejects perfectionism, utopian fantasy, conspiratorial romanticism, revolutionary optimism,; it draws from the classical anarchists their most valid, not their most questionable, ideas." (loc. 7644)

In conclusion, I return to Goodway's introduction. He acknowledges his own life spent immersed in Marxism as much as anarchism, and admits his conviction that the latter proves more urgently relevant for our own challenges. Rather than utopian, it is rather "the belief that voting for a political party--any party--" that is unbelievable if one believes that by voting one "can bring about significant social change": after all as he quotes, "if voting changed anything, it would be abolished." (loc. 133)

Nestled near the end, we find a reminder of the modesty and ambition that combine for anarchism: crucial it "is for individuals to be able to take command of their everyday circumstances and determine the course of their lives, almost certainly collectively: to institute personal and communal autonomy, so far as they are possible, and to exercise individual responsibility." (loc. 7956) A little share of property and the control of one's means of production, combined with a social control over resources that all need to share in common: this may appeal to a few and more, if they read this book.
(Amazon US  5-10-14)

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