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Anarchism in the United Kingdom

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Anarchism in the United Kingdom

Anarchism in the United Kingdom 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.

Early development

Like much of the rest of Europe, Medieval England was ruled by a limited monarch in coalition with a parliament of wealthy aristocrats and landowners. Unlike continental Europe, the parliament of the rich maintained its rights and privileges. When the English monarchy sought to establish absolute monarchy, the English parliament rebelled. During this civil war, dissenting Protestants and rural workers began forming utopian communities, such as the Diggers, based on common ownership of the tools of production. These revolts can be distinguished from medieval revolts like Wat Tyler's on the basis that they occurred inside a commodified production system. (See Christopher Hill, Century of Revolution). As a result of this Civil War, the English aristocratic and capitalist ruling classes united behind Parliament. The Civil War, however, established many civil liberties.

William Godwin in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793); though he did not use the word anarchism, some today regard him as the "founder of philosophical anarchism".[1]

Liberals were often labeled "anarchists" by monarchists, even though they did not call for the abolition of hierarchy. Still, they did promote the idea of human equality, individual rights, and the responsibility of the people to judge their governments, which provided a groundwork for the development of anarchist thought.

In the modern era, the first to use the term "anarchy" to mean something other than chaos was Louis-Armand, Baron de Lahontan, in his Nouveaux voyages dans l'Amérique septentrionale, (New voyages in northern America) (1703) where he described the indigenous American society, which had no state, laws, prisons, priests or private property, as being in anarchy.[2]

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..[3] From this climate William Godwin developed what many consider the first expression of modern anarchist thought.[4] 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[5] been cited as the first anarchist, wrote Political Justice, which some consider to be the first expression of anarchism.[4][6] 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.[4][7]

Nineteenth 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 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."[10]

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 Frank Kitz, an anarchist workman. Morris was left to foot the ongoing operating deficit of the publication, some £4 per week [8] — this at a time when £150 per year was the average annual family income in the kingdom.[12]

Herbert Read provided intellectual stimulus during this period, with key works such as Anarchy & Order; Poetry & Anarchism (1938), Philosophy of Anarchism (1940), "Existentialism, Marxism and Anarchism" (1949), Revolution & Reason (1953), "Icon and Idea" (1955) and My Anarchism (1966), the latter shortly before his death.

Kate Sharpley (1895–1978) was a Deptford-born anarchist and anti-World War I activist. She is chiefly known today through the work of the library named in her honour. She married in 1922 and dropped out of anarchist activities until a chance encounter with Albert Meltzer at a train station during an anti-fascist action. After her death, when Brixton anarchists came to name the archives they had collected from the movement, her name was chosen in preference to a more famous one. The Kate Sharpley Library maintains an archive of original anarchist documents and publishes books and pamphlets based on those materials.

Post-war era


Colin Ward in his workroom, October 2003

The Syndicalist Workers' Federation was a syndicalist group in active in post-war Britain,[19] 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

Solidarity Federation until his death.

A leading pseudonym "Obadiah Hornbrooke".[24] 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.[25]

On the last day of July 1964 an 18-year-old Defensa Interior,[26] 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 and We, the Anarchists! A study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937 (2000).[27]

Contemporary times

Logo of the Solidarity Federation

A surge of popular interest in anarchism occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. In the Kensington, and Henley-on-Thames (during the annual Regatta), bearing banners and placards with slogans such as "Behold your future executioners!" (a phrase coined by the anarchist Lucy Parsons). A national conference was in held Manchester in 1986 and proposed that groups and individuals who produced and supported the paper should form "Class War" groups as part of a national federation with common 'aims and principles'. A Class War Federation developed, gaining particular prominence in the anti-poll tax movement of the late 80s and early 1990s. When Class War spokesman Andy Murphy praised those who had rioted in the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax Riots as "working class heroes",[28] Class War gained wider media exposure (including a 'tea time' interview with Ian Bone on the Jonathan Ross Show (see Poll Tax Riots)). 1992 saw the publication of Unfinished Business - The Politics of Class War published jointly with AK Press that set out where Class War came from, and where it wanted to go.

A rejection of industrial technology is also prominent in the views of many green anarchists, with Colin Ward acting as theorist for this national current. This worldview was associated with the growth of the anti-roads movement in the UK (Reclaim The Streets), the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front. The magazine Green Anarchist was for a while the principal voice in the UK advocating green anarchism, an explicit fusion of libertarian socialist and ecological thinking. Founded after the 1984 Stop the City protests, the magazine was launched in the summer of that year by an editorial collective consisting of Alan Albon, Richard Hunt and Marcus Christo. Early issues featured a range of broadly anarchist and ecological ideas, bringing together groups and individuals as varied as Class War, veteran anarchist writer Colin Ward, anarcho-punk band Crass, as well as the Peace Convoy, anti-nuclear campaigners, animal rights activists and so on. However the diversity that many saw as the publication's greatest strength quickly led to irreconcilable arguments between the essentially pacifist approach of Albon and Christo, and the advocacy of violent confrontation with the State favoured by Hunt. During the 1990s Green Anarchist came under the helm of an editorial collective that included Paul Rogers, Steve Booth and others, during which period the publication became increasingly aligned with primitivism, an anti-civilization philosophy advocated by writers such as John Zerzan, Bob Black and Fredy Perlman.

The Direct Action Movement was formed in 1979, when the one remaining SWF branch, along with other smaller anarchist groups, decided to form a new organisation of anarcho-syndicalists in Britain.[29] The DAM was highly involved in the anarcho-syndicalism as a method of abolishing capitalism and the state. In 1994 it adopted its current name, having previously been the Direct Action Movement since 1979, and before that the Syndicalist Workers' Federation since 1950. In March 1994, DAM changed its name to the Solidarity Federation. Presently, the Solidarity Federation publishes the quarterly magazine Direct Action (presently on hiatus) and the newspaper Catalyst. Several locals and networks also publish their own newsletters. Along with the Anarchist Federation it is one of the two national anarchist federations active in the UK at the present time.

Logo of the Anarchist Federation

The Solidarity and the anarchist communist currents within the Spanish, Russian and Ukrainian Revolutions. The Anarchist Federation continues this tradition of agitation within the workplace and community, rather than attempting to gain prominent bureaucratic positions in trade unions, local councils and other institutions, unlike a number of socialist and communist parties and groups. It promotes grassroots direct activism against the state and capitalism and is run in a horizontalist manner.

In the 1990s National-Anarchism was formed in the United kingdom, and has since spread worldwide.

In July 2011 the Metropolitan Police Service called for anti-anarchist whistleblowers stating: "Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy. Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police."[34] However, they later retracted this statement.


See also


  1. ^ William Godwin entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. ^ Dictionary of the History of Ideas – ANARCHISM
  3. ^ "Anarchism", Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2006 (UK version).
  4. ^ a b c William Godwin entry by Mark Philip in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006-05-20
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Adams, Ian. Political Ideology Today. Manchester University Press, 2001. p. 116.
  7. ^  
  8. ^ a b c Beer, A History of British Socialism, vol. 2, pg. 256.
  9. ^ Marx-Engels Collected Works: Volume 48. New York: International Publishers, 2001; pg. 538, fn. 95.
  10. ^ Frederick Engels to Friedrich Sorge, 4 June 1887. Reprinted in Marx-Engles Collected Works: Volume 48, pg. 70.
  11. ^ Marx-Engels Collected Works: Vol. 48, pg. 611, fn. 642.
  12. ^ Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, pg. 44.
  13. ^ "Ethel Mannin - Gilbert Turner Papers, 1922-1981". Emory University, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Retrieved 19 October 2012. 
  14. ^ 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)
  15. ^ Robert Graham, Anarchism Volume Two: The Anarchist Current (1939-2006). Black Rose Books, 2009 ISBN 1551643103, (p.72-5).
  16. ^ George Orwell at Home pp 71-72 Freedom Press (1998)
  17. ^
  18. ^ 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)
  19. ^ Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations'. United Kingdom: Pinter Publishers. 2000.  
  20. ^ Anglia Ruskin University
  21. ^ a b Rayner, Claire (28 March 2000). "News: Obituaries: Alex Comfort". London:  
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ Carissa Honeywell, A British Anarchist Tradition: Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Colin Ward, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011 ISBN 1441190171 (p.112).
  24. ^ Complete Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell volume II, pg. 294-303
  25. ^ Martin, Douglas (20 March 2000). "'"Alex Comfort, 80, Dies; a Multifaceted Man Best Known for Writing 'The Joy of Sex.  
  26. ^ Keeley, Graham (21 May 2011). "Anarchist jailed over plot to kill Franco fights to clear name". The Times (London). Retrieved 21 May 2011. 
  27. ^ [3]
  28. ^ (here on BBC News after the demonstrations)
  29. ^
  30. ^ Meltzer, Albert (2001). I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels. United Kingdom: AK Press.  
  31. ^
  32. ^ "IAF-IFA membership of the AF". 
  33. ^ "ACF - the first ten years". 
  34. ^ Booth, Robert (31 July 2011). "Anarchists should be reported, advises Westminster anti-terror police". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 1 February 2013. 

Further reading

  • H. Gustav Klaus and Stephen Knight (2005) To Hell with Culture: Anarchism and Twentieth-Century British Literature. University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1898-3
  • David Goodway (2006) Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward. Liverpool University Press. 2006 ISBN 1-84631-025-3
  • John Quail (1978) The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of the British Anarchists. London: Paladin
  • George McKay (1996) Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-260-7.
  • George McKay, ed. (1998) DiY Culture: Party & Protest in Nineties Britain. London: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-028-0.
  • Benjamin Franks, (2006) Rebel Alliances: The Means and Ends of Contemporary British Anarchisms. Edinburgh. AK Press. ISBN 1904859402
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