Anarchism in the United Kingdom

Anarchism in the UK initially developed within the context of radical Whiggery and Protestant religious dissent. During the English Civil War and the industrialisation English anarchist thought developed in the context of revolutionary working class politics.

William Godwin

Modern anarchism sprang from the secular or religious thought of the Enlightenment, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau's arguments for the moral centrality of freedom.[1] From this climate William Godwin developed what many consider the first expression of modern anarchist thought.[2] Godwin was, according to Peter Kropotkin, "the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his work". In 1793, William Godwin, who has often[3] been cited as the first anarchist, wrote Political Justice, which some consider to be the first expression of anarchism.[2][4] Godwin, a philosophical anarchist, from a rationalist and utilitarian basis opposed revolutionary action and saw a minimal state as a present "necessary evil" that would become increasingly irrelevant and powerless by the gradual spread of knowledge.[2][5]

19th century to World War II

In the late nineteenth century, opposition to the existing order of society and a feeling that one could do without it, was not uncommon. It varied from the gradualist support for the English republic of Charles Bradlaugh to the revolutionary republicanism of Algernon Charles Swinburne, to the anarcho-socialism of William Morris and Oscar Wilde to the full-blown anarchism of Peter Kropotkin and his sympathisers. The Socialist League was an early revolutionary socialist organisation in the United Kingdom. Around the middle of this same year, 1887, anarchists began to outnumber socialists in the Socialist League.[6] The 3rd Annual Conference, held in London on 29 May 1887 marked the change, with a majority of the 24 delegates voting in favor of an anarchist-sponsored resolution declaring that "This conference endorses the policy of abstention from parliamentary action, hitherto pursued by the League, and sees no sufficient reason for altering it."[7] Frederick Engels, living in London and a very interested observer in the League's affairs, saw the role of William Morris as decisive. He recounted the events of the 3rd Conference to his friend Friedrich Sorge in a 4 June 1887 letter:

"The anarchist elements which had gained admission to [the conference of the Socialist League] were victorious, being supported by Morris, who has a mortal hatred of all things parliamentary... Resolution — in itself quite innocuous as there can after all be no question of parliamentary action here and now — adopted by 17 votes to 11...

"What really clinched the matter was Morris' declaration that he would quit the moment any parliamentary action was accepted in principle. And since Morris makes good the Commonweal's deficit to the tune of £4 a week, this was for many the decisive factor.

"Our people now intend to get the provinces organised, which they are at present well on the way to doing, and to call an extraordinary conference in about three or four months' time with a view to quashing the above. But it's unlikely to succeed; in the fabrication of voting sections, the anarchists are vastly superior to ourselves and can make eight enfranchised sections out of seven men.... The anarchists, by the way, may shortly throw our people out, and that might be all to the good."[8]

As the tenor of the organisation became increasingly clear, a steady attrition of many of the group's international socialists began to take place. In August 1888, the London branch of the Socialist League to which Tussy Marx and Edward Aveling belonged seceded in favor of establishing itself as an independent organization, the Bloomsbury Socialist Society.[9] By the end of 1888 many other parliamentary-oriented individuals had exited the Socialist League to return to the SDF, with others who remained hostile to the SDF's parliamentary emphasis choosing to involve themselves in the burgeoning movement for so-called "New Unionism."[6] As the socialist factions left, the anarchist faction solidified its hold on the organisation. By 1889, the anarchist wing had completely captured the organisation. William Morris was stripped of the editorship of Commonweal in favor of Frank Kitz, an anarchist workman. Morris was left to foot the ongoing operating deficit of the publication, some £4 per week [6] — this at a time when £150 per year was the average annual family income in the kingdom.[10]

Post-war era

Ethel Mannin (6 October 1900[11] – 5 December 1984) was a popular British novelist, travel writer and anarchist. Mannin listed Bart de Ligt and A. S. Neill as thinkers who influenced her ideas.[12] Mannin's 1944 book Bread and Roses: A Utopian Survey and Blue-Print has been described by historian Robert Graham as setting forth "an ecological vision in opposition to the prevailing and destructive industrial organization of society".[13] When Vernon Richards and three other editors were arrested at the beginning of 1945 for attempting "to undermine the affections of members of His Majesty's Forces.",[14] Benjamin Britten, E. M. Forster, Augustus John, George Orwell, Herbert Read (chairman), Osbert Sitwell and George Woodcock set up the Freedom Defence Committee to "uphold the essential liberty of individuals and organizations, and to defend those who are persecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, writing and action."[15] The Syndicalist Workers' Federation was a syndicalist group active in post-war Britain,[16] and one of the Solidarity Federation's earliest predecessors. It was formed in 1950 by members of the dissolved Anarchist Federation of Britain (not to be confused with the current Anarchist Federation which was founded as the Anarchist Communist Federation in 1986). Unlike the AFB, which was influenced by anarcho-syndicalist ideas but ultimately not syndicalist itself, the SWF decided to pursue a more definitely syndicalist, worker-centred strategy from the outset. The group joined the International Workers Association and during the Franco era gave particular support to the Spanish resistance and the underground CNT anarcho-syndicalist union, previously involved in the 1936 Spanish Revolution and subsequent Civil War against a right-wing military coup backed by both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The SWF initially had some success, but when Tom Brown, a long-term and very active member was forced out of activity, it declined until by 1979 it had only one lone branch in Manchester. The SWF then dissolved itself into the group founded as the Direct Action Movement. Its archives are held by the International Institute of Social History, and a selection of the SWFs publication have been digitally published on

Colin Ward was editor of the British anarchist newspaper Freedom from 1947 to 1960, and the founder and editor of the monthly anarchist journal Anarchy from 1961 to 1970.[17][18] Over the years the Freedom editorial group has included Jack Robinson, Pete Turner, Colin Ward, Nicolas Walter, Alan Albon, John Rety, Nino Staffa, Dave Mansell, Gillian Fleming, Mary Canipa, Philip Sansom, Arthur Moyse and many others. Clifford Harper maintained a loose association for 30 years. Albert Meltzer was a contributor in the 1950s to the long-running anarchist paper Freedom before leaving in 1965 to start his own venture Wooden Shoe Press. Soon Meltzer was to be involved in a long and bitter dispute with fellow anarchist and former comrade at Freedom Press Vernon Richards which entangled many of their associates and the organisations with which they were involved and continued after both their deaths. Although the feud started in a dispute arising from the possibility of Wooden Shoe moving into Freedom premisses, there were also political differences. Meltzer advocated a more firebrand and proletarian variety of anarchism than Richards and often denounced him and the Freedom collective as "liberals". Meltzer was a co-founder of the anarchist newspaper Black Flag and was a prolific writer on anarchist topics. Amongst his books were Anarchism, Arguments For and Against (originally published by Cienfuegos Press) , The Floodgates of Anarchy (co-written with Stuart Christie) and his autobiography, I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels, published by AK Press shortly before his death. Meltzer also was involved in the founding of the Anarchist Black Cross. He joined the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement in the early 80s and was a member of it, and its successor organisation the Solidarity Federation until his death. A leading anarcho-pacifist, Alex Comfort considered himself "an aggressive anti-militarist", and he believed that pacifism rested "solely upon the historical theory of anarchism".[19][20] He was an active member of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and a conscientious objector in World War II. In 1951 Comfort was a signatory of the Authors’ World Peace Appeal, but later resigned from its committee, claiming the AWPA had become dominated by Soviet sympathisers.[21] Later in the decade he actively supported both the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War when the Committee of 100 was formed, Comfort was imprisoned for a month, alongside Bertrand Russell and others, for refusing to be bound over not to take part in the Trafalgar Square protest in September 1961. Among the works on anarchism by Comfort is Peace and Disobedience (1946), one of many pamphlets he wrote for Peace News and PPU, and Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950).[19] He exchanged public correspondence with George Orwell defending pacifism in the open letter/poem, "Letter to an American Visitor", under the pseudonym "Obadiah Hornbrooke".[22] Comfort's 1972 book The Joy of Sex earned him worldwide fame and $3 million. But he was unhappy to become known as "Dr. Sex" and to have his other works given so little attention.[23]

On the last day of July 1964 an 18-year-old Stuart Christie departed London for Paris, where he picked up plastic explosives from the anarchist organisation Defensa Interior,[24] and then Madrid on a mission to kill General Francisco Franco. This was to be one of at least 30 attempts on the dictator's life. After his release he continued his activism in the anarchist movement in the United Kingdom, re-formed the Anarchist Black Cross and Black Flag with Albert Meltzer, was acquitted of involvement with the Angry Brigade, and started the publishing house Cienfuegos Press (later Refract Publications), which for a number of years he operated from the remote island of Sanday, Orkney, where he also edited and published a local Orcadian newspaper, The Free-Winged Eagle. Christie wrote with Meltzer, The Floodgates of Anarchy and later We, the Anarchists! A study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937 (2000).[25]




See also


  1. "Anarchism", Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2006 (UK version).
  2. Philip, Mark (2006-05-20). "William Godwin". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. Everhart, Robert B. The Public School Monopoly: A Critical Analysis of Education and the State in American Society. Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research, 1982. p. 115.
  4. Adams, Ian. Political Ideology Today. Manchester University Press, 2001. p. 116.
  5. Godwin, William (1796) [1793]. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners. G.G. and J. Robinson. OCLC 2340417.
  6. Beer, A History of British Socialism, vol. 2, pg. 256.
  7. Marx-Engels Collected Works: Volume 48. New York: International Publishers, 2001; pg. 538, fn. 95.
  8. Frederick Engels to Friedrich Sorge, 4 June 1887. Reprinted in Marx-Engles Collected Works: Volume 48, pg. 70.
  9. Marx-Engels Collected Works: Vol. 48, pg. 611, fn. 642.
  10. Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, pg. 44.
  11. "Ethel Mannin - Gilbert Turner Papers, 1922-1981". Emory University, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Archived from the original on 8 April 2013. Retrieved 19 October 2012.
  12. Twentieth century authors, a biographical dictionary of modern literature, edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft; (Third Edition). New York, The H.W. Wilson Company, 1950 (p.905-6)
  13. Robert Graham, Anarchism Volume Two: The Anarchist Current (1939-2006). Black Rose Books, 2009 ISBN 1551643103, (p.72-5).
  14. George Orwell at Home pp 71-72 Freedom Press (1998)
  15. Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (eds.). The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose (1945-1950) (Penguin)
  16. Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations'. United Kingdom: Pinter Publishers. 2000. ISBN 978-1855672642.
  17. Goodway, David (2012). Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward. PM Press. p. 312. ISBN 978-1-60486-667-4.
  18. Lynd, Staughton; Grubačić, Andrej (2008). Wobblies & Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History. PM Press. p. 250. ISBN 978-1-60486-041-2.
  19. Rayner, Claire (28 March 2000). "News: Obituaries: Alex Comfort". London: The Guardian. Archived from the original on 18 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-23.
  20. For discussions of Comfort's political views, see Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (1992) by Peter Marshall, and Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (2006) by David Goodway.
  21. Carissa Honeywell, A British Anarchist Tradition: Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Colin Ward, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011 ISBN 1441190171 (p.112).
  22. Complete Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell volume II, pg. 294-303
  23. Martin, Douglas (20 March 2000). "Alex Comfort, 80, Dies; a Multifaceted Man Best Known for Writing 'The Joy of Sex'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-23.
  24. Keeley, Graham (21 May 2011). "Anarchist jailed over plot to kill Franco fights to clear name". The Times. London. Retrieved 21 May 2011.
  25. Christie, Stuart. "Review: We, the Anarchists! A study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937". Archived from the original on January 7, 2017.

Further reading

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