Anarchy in Action : Introduction to the Second Edition

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(1924 - 2010) ~ British Anarchist Writer and Social Historian : ...lived with the title of Britain's most famous anarchist for nearly half a ­century, bemused by this ambivalent sobriquet. In Anarchy in Action (1973), he set out his belief that an anarchist society was not an end goal. (From : Guardian Obituary.)
• "It is, after all, the principle of authority which ensures that people will work for someone else for the greater part of their lives, not because they enjoy it or have any control over their work, but because they see it as their only means of livelihood." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)
• "The anarchists, who have always distinguished between the state and society, adhere to the social principle, which can be seen where-ever men link themselves in an association based on a common need or a common interest." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)
• "...the bombs you are worried about are not the bombs which cartoonists attribute to the anarchists, but the bombs which governments have perfected, at your expense." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)


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Introduction to the Second Edition

Introduction to the Second Edition

The anarchist movement grows in times of popular self-activity, feeds it and feeds off it, and declines when that self-activity declines... The anarchists in England have paid for the gap between their day-to-day activities and their utopian aspirations. This gap consists basically of a lack of strategy, a lack of ability to assess the general situation and initiate a general project which is consistent with the anarchists utopia, and which is not only consistent with anarchist tactics but inspires them.

John Quail, The Slow Burning Fuze:
The Lost History of the British Anarchists (Paladin 1978)

Anarchism as a political and social ideology has two separate origins. It can be seen as an ultimate derivative of liberalism or as a final end for socialism. In either case, the problems that face the anarchist propagandist are the same. The ideas he is putting forward are so much at variance with ordinary political assumptions, and the solutions he offers are so remote, there is such a gap between what is, and what, according to the anarchist, might be, that his audience cannot take him seriously.

One elementary principle of attempting to teach anyone anything is that you attempt to build on the common foundation of common experience and common knowledge. That is the intention of the present volume.

This book was commissioned by the publishers Allen and Unwin and originally appeared from them in 1973, and was subsequently published in America and, in translation, in Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Japanese. It was not intended for people who had spent a life-time pondering the problems of anarchism, but for those who either had no idea of what the word implied, or who knew exactly what it implied, and had rejected it, considering that it had no relevance for the modern world.

My original preference as a title was the more cumbersome but more accurate “Anarchism as a theory of organization”, because as I urge in my preface, that is what the book is about. It is not about strategies for revolution and it is not involved with speculation on the way an anarchist society would function. It is about the ways in which people organize themselves in any kind of human society, whether we care to categorize those societies as primitive, traditional, capitalist or communist.

In this sense the book is simply an extended, updating footnote to Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Since it was written I have edited for a modern readership two other works of his, and I am bound to say that the experience has enhanced my agreement with George Orwell’s conclusion that Peter Kropotkin was “one of the most persuasive of anarchist writers” because of his “inventive and pragmatic outlook”.

In particular, as an amplification of some of the ideas expressed in the present volume, I would like readers to be aware of the edition I prepared of his Fields, Factories and Workshops (London: 1974, reprinted with additional material by Freedom Press, 1985) New York: Harper & Widstrand 1980). Anyone who wants to understand the real nature of the crisis of the British economy in the nineteen-eighties would gain more enlightenment from Kropotkin’s analysis from the eighteen- nineties than from the current spokesmen of any of the political parties.

But if this book is just a footnote to Kropotkin, and if it is open to the same criticism as his book (that it is a selective gathering of anecdotal evidence to support the points that the author wants to make) it does attempt to look at a variety of aspects of daily life in the light of traditional anarchist contentions about the nature of authority and the propensity for self-organization.

Many years of attempting to be an anarchist propagandist have convinced me that we win over our fellow citizen to anarchist ideas, precisely through drawing upon the common experience of the informal, transient, self-organizing networks of relationships that in fact make the human community possible, rather than through the rejection of existing society as a whole in favor of some future society where some different kind of humanity will live in perfect harmony.

Since this edition is a reproduction of the original text, my purpose here is to add a few comments and further references, both to update it and to take note of critical comments.

Anarchy and the State

This is a restatement of the classical anarchist criticism of government and the state, emphasizing the historical division between anarchism and Marxism. In 1848, the year of the Communist Manifesto, Proudhon gave vent to an utterance of marvelous invective, which I had meant to include in this chapter:

“To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked-off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about, by creatures without knowledge and without virtues. To be ruled is, at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected. It is, on the pretext of public utility and in the name of the common good, to be put under contribution, pressured, mystified, robbed; then, at the least resistance and at the first hint of complaint, repressed, fined, vilified, vexed, hunted, exasperated, knocked-down, disarmed, garroted, imprisoned, shot, grape-shot, judged, condemned, deported, sacrificed, sold, tricked; and to finish off with, hoaxed, calumniated, dishonored. Such is government! And to think that there are democrats among us who claim there’s some good in government!”

That must have seemed a ludicrous over-statement in 19th-century France. But wouldn’t it be perfectly comprehensible to any citizen who steps out of line in any of the totalitarian regimes of the Right or Left that today govern the greater part of the world? Among the attributes of government which Proudhon did not include in his list of horrors, is systematic torture, a unique prerogative of governments in the 20th century.

When this chapter was previously published in a symposium on Participatory Democracy the editors made comments which I found both gratifying and suggestive of ways in which its thesis could be extended. They wrote:

“The anarchist critique of the state, which has often seemed simplistic, is here presented in one of its most sophisticated forms. Here the state is conceived of as the formalization — and rigidification — of the unused power that the social order has abdicated. In American society it takes the form of a coalition of political, military, and industrial elites, preempting space that is simply not occupied by the rest of society.

“Ward believes that the state represents a kind of relationship between people which becomes formalized into a set of vested interests that operates contrary to the interests of the people — even to the point where it evaluates its means in terms of megadeaths. One could take the number of people employed directly by the state as a function of total populations, the amount of state spending as a function of total spending (in socialist states this would require careful functional definition of what constituted the domain of the state as opposed to the social order) and in general compare the resource use of the two areas. One could then analyze the social order in terms of degree of participation, key decisions involving utilization of social resources and who makes them. Studies of the correlations between state power and social participation in various countries would verify Ward’s thesis: those countries that are top-heavy with state power are the countries in which social participation is weak. A more devastating critique of statism could probably not be imagined.”

The Theory of Spontaneous Order

FIXME there is no p. 146, even in the scan

This chapter drew largely on popular experience of revolutionary situations, actual or potential, before a New Order had filled the gap occupied by the old order. In addition to the works cited on p. 146, several more studies of the Spanish revolution of 1936 have become available since, notably the English translation of Gaston Leval’s Collectives in the Spanish Revolution (Freedom Press 1975).

To the experience of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 must be added that of Poland in 1980. However the story ends, the achievements of Solidarity in forcing concessions, without loss of life, on a ruling bureaucracy which had not hesitated a decade earlier to order its forces to shoot down striking workers, is a remarkable triumph of working-class self organization.

The Dissolution of Leadership

Harmony Through Complexity

Topless Federations

These three chapters, using non-anarchist sources, try to set out three key principles of an anarchist theory of organization: the concept of leaderless groups, the notion that a healthy society needs diversity rather than unity, and the idea of federalist organizations without a central authority. A number of more recent books reinforce the evidence for these chapters. Proudhon’s Du Principe Federatif has at last been published in English. (Translated by Richard Vernon, University of Toronto Press 1979) The inferences drawn from the history of Swiss federalism are enhanced by Jonathan Steinberg’s Why Switzerland? (Cambridge University Press 1976), and the anthropological material on stateless societies is added to in part five of Kirkpatrick Sale’s Human Scale (Secker & Warburg 1980).

Who Is to Plan?

We House, You Are Housed, They Are Homeless

The arguments of these two chapters are set out at much greater length in my books Tenants Take Over (Architectural Press 1974) and Talking Houses (Freedom Press 1990) as well as in John Turner’s Housing by People (Marion Boyars 1976).

Open and Closed Families

One reviewer criticized this chapter for its claim that the revolution in sexual behavior in our own day is an essentially anarchist revolution, because in his view it was simply a result of a chemico-technical breakthrough, the contraceptive pill. My own Dutch translator felt that it was marred by an absence of appreciation of the feminist point of view. I don’t think so myself, but I do think that this chapter just skates over the surface of the dilemmas of personal freedom and parental responsibility. As Sheila Rowbotham wrote recently, “A campaign for child care which demands the liberation of women and the liberation of children not only reveals the immediate tensions between the two; it also requires a society based on cooperation and free association.”

Schools No Longer

This chapter needs no updating, but is extended to some degree by a lecture of mine called “Towards a Poor School”, published in Talking Schools, (Freedom Press, 1995) as well as by Chapter 16 of my book The Child in the City. Of the various occupations in which I worked for forty years, teaching is the only one which I have a government license to perform. I am the author of several school books, and the former director of a Schools Council project. I am even a former branch secretary of one of the teaching unions. Yet on every significant issue I have found myself totally opposed to the views of the teaching profession. It sought, and won, the raising of the minimum age limit for compulsory schooling. I favored its abolition. It wants to eliminate the “private sector” in education, while I see it as the one guarantee that genuine radical experiment can happen. It opposes the abandonment of the legal right to hit children.

I am well aware that the organized opinion of the profession is not the same as that of individual teachers. I revere education. I just can’t stomach the dreadful pretensions of the education industry, especially when compared with the results. And I know that my misgivings about education are paralleled by a consideration of any other aspect of the contemporary West-European corporate state, like, for example, the health service or the public provision of housing.

None of my own writings, alas, can be said to propound an anarchist theory of education, but they do raise some of the ironies and paradoxes of attempts to achieve economic equality or social change through the manipulation of the education system. A brave effort to draw together the various streams of anarchist ideas on education is made in Joel H. Spring’s A Primer of Libertarian Education (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975).

Play as an Anarchist Parable

Play is a parable of anarchy, since it is an area of human activity which is self-chosen and self-directed, but this very fact leads to a comparison with work.

Work is Leisure is
Hated Enjoyed
Long Brief
For someone else For yourself
Essential for livelihood Inessential for livelihood
Concentrated At your own pace
For fixed hours In your own time

I quote this polarization from my school book on Work (Penguin Education 1972), because any discussion of play and of leisure (Britain’s fastest-growing industry’) leads to a consideration of what is wrong with people’s working lives.

A Self-Employed Society

This is the chapter which is most in need of bringing up to date, but which has an enormously relevant title. Readers do need reminding that for several decades, until the 1960s, the anarchists (apart from a few faithful stalwarts of the producer cooperative movement) were virtually the only people publishing propaganda for worker self-management in industry. Since this book was first published there have been a variety of new experiences and new ventures, and an absolute mountain of new literature.

In left-wing political circles in Britain, for sixty years, the demand for workers’ self-management was regarded as a marginal and diversionary issue compared with the demand for nationalization, the universal cure-all. The atmosphere changed only in the 1970s, when, as an alternative to quiet extinction, workers in a number of enterprises threatened by closure, sought, through protracted “sit-ins” to demand that they should be helped to keep the plant open under workers’ control. Readers will remember the particular local epics at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders at Govan, at the former Fisher-Bendix factory outside Liverpool, at the Scottish Daily Express, at Fakenham Enterprises in Norfolk and at the Meriden motorcycle plant at Coventry.

When Anthony Wedgwood Benn persuaded his fellow members of the Labor government to back these aspirations with public money (a policy which would have been followed automatically when ordinary capitalist industry was concerned), it represented a complete turnaround in his interpretation of socialism as applied to industry. For it was Mr Benn who, in the 1964 Labor government, had been the mastermind, through his Industrial Reorganization Corporation, of the takeover of half the motor industry by Leylands (a formerly successful bus and lorry firm from Lancashire) and most of the electrical industry by GEC, in the hope of enabling British industry to complete on equal terms for the continental market with the European giants.

These were vain hopes, and one of the glumly hilarious spectacles of the 1980s has been to see a Conservative government, committed to laissez-faire liberalism, continually bailing out British Leyland from tax revenue. The Benn-sponsored co-ops have mostly collapsed, or have had to rely so completely on capitalist investment that their cooperative structure has been submerged. It was only because these firms were dying that the workers’ aspirations were given an airing, and there are even people with a conspiratorial view of history who see the whole episode as having been invented to discredit the cooperative ideal.

But as unemployment continually increases in Britain, people who have lost confidence in the usual political panaceas, have shown an increasing interest in cooperative ventures. The British discovered the Mondragon co-operatives in the Basque country, with pilgrimages of trade union officers and local councilors going to Spain to discover the secret of Mondragon’s success. The significant recent books are Worker-Owners: The Mondragon Achievemnt (Anglo-German Foundation 1977), Robert Oakeshott’s The Case for Workers’ Co-ops (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1978), Workers’ Co-operatives: A Handbook (Aberdeen People’s Press 1980) and Jenny Thomley: Workers’ Co-operatives: Jobs and Dreams (Heinemann 1981).

The majority of recent cooperative ventures cannot be regarded as success stories: they have failed. Nor are the apparent pre-conditions for success particularly acceptable to anarchists. Robert Oakeshott, for example, concludes that there are at least four such conditions: “first, the main thrust to get the enterprises off the ground must come from the potential workforce itself; second, the commitment of the workforce needs to be further secured by the requirement of a meaningful capital stake; third, the prospective enterprise must be equipped with a manager or a management team which is at least not inferior to that which a conventional enterprise would enjoy; fourth, these enterprises must work together in materially supportive groupings, for in isolation they are hopelessly vulnerable.”

The Breakdown of Welfare

This chapter does have the merit of raising issues which are unfashionable both among the defenders of the contemporary British welfare state and among its critics. Since it was written we have moved into the era of cuts in welfare expenditure, imposed by both Labor and Conservative governments. It is not at all easy to take part in the arguments surrounding the cuts from an anarchist point of view. On the one hand we have the political left which regards the provision of welfare, subsidized housing or subsidized transport as a “social wage” which mitigates the exploitation which it associates with the capitalist system. On the other hand is the political right which claims that the people who derive most from the public services are people who could perfectly well afford to meet their true cost. (And in fact it is perfectly true that the poor derive the least from welfare provision). The whole argument is complicated by the fact that we have now entered the period of mass unemployment.

Welfare is administered by a top-heavy governmental machine which ensures that when economies in public expenditure are imposed by its political masters, they are made by reducing the service to the public, not by reducing the cost of administration. Thus, as Leslie Chapman remarked in his book Your Disobedient Servant, in this way “the wicked injustice of the cuts, the desirability of replacing them as quickly as possible, the unwisdom of those who imposed them and the long suffering patience of those who received them were all demonstrated in one convenient package.” This was subsequently demonstrated during both Labor and Conservative governments. Writing in 1977, A. H. Halsey observed that “we live today under sentence of death by a thousand cuts, that is, of all things except the body of bureaucracy”. And Peter Townsend noted two years later commenting on “Social Policy in Conditions of Scarcity” that “services to consumers or clients were much more vulnerable than staff establishments.”

This was nowhere better demonstrated than in the evolution of the National Health Service. In the ten years before its reorganization, health service staff generally increased by 65 per cent. However, during that period medical and nursing staff increased by only 21 per cent and domestic staff by 2 per cent. The rest was administration. The government hired a firm of consultants, McKinsey’s, to advise on reorganization. The members of McKinsey’s staff who produced the new structure are now convinced that they gave the wrong advice. Similarly the former chief architect to the DHSS is now convinced that the advice he gave for ten years on hospital design was in fact misguided.

We have failed to come to terms with the fact that our publicly-provided services, just like our capitalist industries, also propped up by taxation, are dearly bought. This was less apparent in the past when public services were few and cheap. Old people who recall the marvelous service they used to get from the post office or the railways, never mention that these used to be low wage industries which, in return for relative security, were run with a military-style discipline, to which not even the army, let alone you or I, would submit today.

Any public service nowadays has to pay the going rate, and there is every reason why this should be so. The question at issue is whether government provision is the best way of meeting social needs. We are always offering superior advice to those third world countries where “aid” is dissipated in the cost of administering it, but we are in just the same situation ourselves. “Added to the traditional burdens of the poor,” remark the authors of The Wincroft Youth Project, “there is now the weight of a bureaucracy that, ironically, is employed to serve them.”

How Deviant Dare You Get?

This chapter deals, however inadequately, with the objection most people raise to anarchist ideas: the anarchist rejection of the law, the legal system and the agencies of law-enforcement. Since this book was first published there have been three new contributions to this debate. One, which, sadly, fails to live up to the promise of its title is Larry Tifft and Dennis Sullivan: The Struggle to be Human: Crime, Criminology and Anarchism (Cienfuegos Press 1980). Another is Alan Ritter’s Anarchism: A Theoretical Analysis (Cambridge University Press 1980) whose author concludes on this issue that “Even under anarchy there remains some danger of misconduct, which authority sanctioned by rebuke prevents. Though anarchists do not call this rebuke punishment, it is easy to show that they should.” The third, and most suggestive is the chapter on “A Policy for Crime Control” in Stuart Henry’s The Hidden Economy (Martin Robertson 1978). Henry argues for what he calls normative control of crime, by which he means “group or community control”. He remarks that, “It may be too early to predict, but it would seem that the administration of criminal justice for some types of offense may be about to complete a full circle. Beginning with community control in an underdeveloped society, we have progressed through various stages of formal, professional, bureaucratic justice as industrialization has gathered momentum. However, recent years have witnessed a new wave of dissatisfaction with centralized, bureaucratic structures through which most aspects of our life are managed. In areas as diverse as government, industry, health and welfare, the emerging trend is toward devolution, decentralization, democratization and popular participation. A part of this trend is the de-centralization of criminal justice to a form of community control which was once commonplace... Many commentators are rapidly reaching the conclusion that only people involved in and aware of the community can act as effective forces in crime prevention and that simply increasing police and court capacity will neither solve the problems presently plaguing criminal justice systems, nor equip these systems to cope with changing trends in crime. It is felt that the only way out of the present situation is for criminal justice and the community to be brought closer together, so that those who judge and those who are judged are part of the same society... I believe that only with this degree of involvement and understanding can we ever hope to liberate ourselves from the hypocrisy of our attitude to “crime”, and only then will we be capable of controlling it.”

Anarchy and a Plausible Future

The muted and tentative conclusions of this chapter still seem to me to be valid. If I were writing it today I would certainly have had more to say about the collapse of employment. When this book was written Britain had 800,000 workers registering as unemployed. This was thought at the time to be a scandalous and totally unacceptable figure. Eight years later the figure has risen to 3 million (October 1981). Belatedly we are groping after alternative forms of work to employment. Nobody really believes that manufacturing industry is going to recover lost markets. Nobody really believes that robots or microprocessors are going to create more than a small proportion of the jobs they displace. Finally we have even lost faith in the idea that the service economy is going to expand to fill the jobs lost in the production economy. Jonathan Gershuny shows in his book After Industrial Society (Macmillan 1979) that service industries themselves are already declining and that what is more likely to emerge is a self-service economy.

It is the inexorable whittling away of employment that is leading to speculation about the potential of other ways of organizing work, a theme of several chapters in this book. The pre-industrial economy was a domestic economy, (Elliot Jacques reminds us that the word “employment” has only been used in its present sense since the 1840s), and perhaps a domestic economy of individual or collective self-employment is the pattern for the future of work. Hence the growing interest in what is variously termed the irregular economy, the informal economy, or the black economy. Gershuny and Ray Pahl invite us to consider a future in which more and more people move out of “employment” into working for themselves. “Is it sapping the moral fiber of the nation or is it strengthening kin links and neighborly relations more than armies of social workers and priests have ever been able to do? What, in a phrase, will it be like to live in a world dominated more and more by household and hidden economies and less by the formal economy?”

One of the possibilities they see is of a dual labor market: a high-pay, high technology, aristocracy of labor and a low-wage, low-skill sector, and beyond both the mafiosi of big bosses and little crooks. Another is of a police state dominated by a vast bureaucracy of law enforcement, where “people would feel much like those caught in the “socialism” of Poland or Czechoslovakia.”

Their third, and more hopeful, alternative depends on “a deeper understanding of the socially desirable aspects of the informal economy and by sympathetic encouragement of them.” But who is going to give sympathetic encouragement to the dismantling of industrialism, one of the bulwarks of social control? Not the captains of industry. Not the manipulators of the machinery of government.

Suppose our future in fact lies, not with a handful of technocrats pushing buttons to support the rest of us, but with a multitude of small activities, whether by individuals or groups, doing their own thing? Suppose the only plausible economic recovery consists in people picking themselves up off the industrial scrapheap, or rejecting their slot in the micro-technology system, and making their own niche in the world of ordinary needs and their satisfaction. Wouldn’t that be something to do with anarchism?

C. W.

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November 30, 1995 :
Introduction to the Second Edition -- Publication.

July 22, 2019 18:42:12 :
Introduction to the Second Edition -- Added to


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