Anarchists & Gentlemen
[George Woodcock is replying to a letter on his article, “Anarchism Revisited” (August), that appeared in our October number—Ed.]
Mr. Woodcock writes:
Max Nomad’s comment on my article is a fine example of a variant on the argumentum ad hominem which he has used freely in his books. The formula is: create, by innuendo and exaggeration, a laughable portrait of your adversary, after which it is completely unnecessary to discuss his ideas with any seriousness; they fall with the man.
In my own case he declares that my anarchism is “probably” the reaction of a “conscience-stricken gentleman,” and, having lodged in the minds of readers the image of a playboy of politics, he discreetly drops the cautious word “probably” and goes on to talk of my arguments as an “anarchism-for-gentlemen.” Such treatment is all very well for the dead who cannot answer, but not so clever when applied to the living who can. While I find it rather distasteful to enter into the mood of schoolboy rivalry in which Nomad pits his record against mine, I do feel it is perhaps appropriate to remark that by all the criteria he uses it is Nomad who was the gentleman-anarchist. His father was a doctor, and he studied law at the university. I came from mingled proletarian and decayed yeoman stock, and my family was so poor that it was impossible for me to go to university even on a scholarship; I had to work in my teens to help feed the household, and it was the humiliations of poverty experienced at the age of sixteen or seventeen, not the “beauty of the anarchist idea,” that first turned me toward radicalism. I too am a declassé; while Nomad moved downward, as he appears to think, into the radical intelligentsia, I moved upward to the same destination by self-education. As for manual work—if muscle-flexing is to be part of the argument—I still occasionally use some of the skills I acquired when I worked for my living as a carpenter, a plasterer’s mate, a ditch-digger, etc. All very silly, of course, but this is the kind of argument into which people who argue as Nomad does at times force their opponents.
It will be noticed that Nomad continues in the same vein. He accuses me of showing a special predilection for Proudhon—though in fact I spent more space on Kropotkin—and then, by dragging some obscure passages out of Proudhon’s massive writings, proceeds to construct a bogey who is far removed from the real man. Proudhon said some stupid and unforgivable things, usually once, and in a fit of anger; his remark about the Jews was made in the privacy of his diary at a time when Marx had enraged him by gratuitous insults and when he suspected Heine (unjustly as it turned out) of being a mouchard, and it was the outburst of an angry man brought up in the French working-class prejudices of his time, but it had no bearing on the constructive aspects of his thought and work, which inspired both the Communards and the early founders of the International. There is of course no way in which such a remark can be excused, but if we were all to be judged by the statements we have made in moments of passion, we would all stand condemned, and I am sure Mr. Nomad would be among us. Justice, even in biography, must be represented as holding a balance in which men’s positive acts and thoughts are weighed against the negative. That is the only way in which we can find men like Dostoevsky, for example, endurable. Mr. Nomad’s method of luridly highlighting the bad and forgetting the good may be shocking, or entertaining, according to one’s predilections, but it hardly makes for objective or honest history.
However, it does make a good smoke screen. It enables Mr. Nomad to spend several hundred words expounding, as if this were something I had missed, his views on the failure of the historic anarchist movement. If Mr. Nomad had read my piece, he would have found that this failure is precisely what I am demonstrating, and that I show that the failure took place precisely because—as he argues—anarchist methods and organization were at variance with anarchist ideas. In fact, all his argument is already present in a single sentence of mine: “The anarchists of the past were too much inclined, despite their fervent anti-Marxism, to accept the stereotypes of 19th-century left-wing thinking; the idea of the class struggle as a dominant and constructive force in society, the romantic cult of insurrectionism and terror, and even—though this they rarely admitted—a vision of proletarian dictatorship, particularly among the anarcho-syndicalists who envisaged a society run by monolithic workers’ unions.”
The main arguments of my essay Nomad dismisses with his facile sneer about an “anarchism-for-gentlemen.” But I make it quite clear that I am not in fact advocating anything that orthodox anarchists would recognize, and I say quite clearly that: “The anarchists . . . will never create their own world; the free society of which they have dreamed is as pleasant and as remote a myth as the idyllic libertarian society William Morris portrayed in News from Nowhere.” What I did try to do was to show why certain ideas put forward by anarchist thinkers, particularly on decentralization and grass-roots organization, inevitably appeal to the young of today. I also set out to show how the negativeness of much traditional anarchist talk and practice obscured the presence of constructive ideas which are worth reconsidering in an age dominated by what Nomad calls “a system headed by an office-holding and managerial elite.” That system is not a fatal condition of mankind; it is already showing strains that are making great social changes inevitable, and at such times we cannot afford to leave any constructive suggestion unexamined. Young radicals are turning toward libertarian ideas, and the kind who wave black flags in Paris are the least important of them, the least numerous, and the most infected by outdated Bakunin-ish romanticism. It is the distrust of authoritarian structures, the attempt to create responsible involvement by people in their own affairs at every level, that are the important elements from anarchism widely taken over by the youth movements of today. But these are things Mr. Nomad ignores, and altogether one senses in his letter a peculiar in-sensitivity to the vibrations of the present. The time for denigration and debunking, the fashions when Nomad was at his prime as a writer, is over. We all know that men are imperfect and inconsistent, that causes fail, that ideals are never completely translated into reality, that every private mind harbors its monstrosity like a pet in a kennel; we no longer find such facts amusing. Having learned as much, it is time to use our understanding in order to see what can be done by man as he is, and to take good ideas wherever we find them.