George Walford: Letter to an Anarchist

Dear John,

I read Barclay, People Without Government, spluttering and fuming at the things he was saying, to find at the end I agreed with his final position. I was saying, at the meeting last Friday, that the prospect of a society running wholly or mainly on anarchist lines is probably an illusion. Barclay says, in his final paragraph:

It appears, indeed, that we are left with a politics of perpetual protest. There cannot be any point at which those dedicated to liberty can sit back in security and assume the world is in peace, harmony and freedom. That a truly free society may never be obtained or, if achieved, would have the most tenuous life is clearly no excuse to abandon the struggle. If we resign ourselves to what is, there would hardly be much point in living. And, even if anarchy were to be achieved, eternal vigilance would be the bare minimum price for even a modicum of success. Despite what the international anthem of the revolutionary class might say there is no final battle. The battle is forever.

When he claims to find anarchy among herders, gardeners and agriculturalists I disagree; what he has there is only undeveloped statism – the hunter-gatherers are the extreme example. It is a pre-state condition (or one with only the bare beginnings of the state), and to me anarchism has to be post-state, it has to be not the ignorance of state power – which leaves you eternally vulnerable to it – but informed repudiation of it.

Barclay says “Anarchism is in sum a complex theoretical orientation” (p 15) – i.e. it requires sophisticated thinking, not just a tendency to act in a certain way. The hunter-gatherers developed the human community, they began the use of fire, they came to use tools in a way the animals do not, and they invented language; these may well have been the greatest human inventions; these people have to be respected. But I doubt whether they were all that strong on complex theoretical orientations.

On one issue he has caused me to alter my ideas to agree with his – and there aren’t many books that do that any longer. He has a chapter “Anarchy in the Modern World.” Here he is talking about what I called, the other Friday, “practical anarchism,” but he goes farther, speaking not only of individual people living in anarchist ways but also of various forms of anarchist organisation now operating. Nothing very novel about that, but I had been tending to dismiss these as not true anarchism, while in the context Barclay gives I can accept that they are.

Where I end up (and I think I am drawing the conclusion to which Barclay’s work points although he does not quite draw this one himself) is that anarchy is not something that we have to hope for in a vague and remote future. It is happening now; we have only to recognise it. This society we live in is anarchist. Of course, it’s other things too: it’s communist, socialist, libertarian, toryist, fascist, populist, capitalist, buddhist, militarist, religionist, statist…

Can anarchists object to this? Comfort point out, in his Preface to Barclay:

One cannot say with Colonel Blimp “Dammit, if the blighters won’t be democratic we must make ’em.” It is the blighters themselves who have to choose.

He fails to see that they have already chosen. Some few have chosen anarchism. Most have chosen other ways of living. A society in which people can do that seems to me not less but more free, more anarchistic, than the purist vision of Anarchy in which everybody would have to live in an anarchist way.

What led you to recommend the book was saying that hunter-gatherers had individual ownership. You replied, in effect: “No, they don’t. Read Barclay.” But Barclay says:

In fact, what is communally held in such societies is invariably land; tools, livestock and many other kinds of resources (e.g. fishing sites) are individually owned. (p 13)

(He does not, to my mind, fully recognise the distinctive features of the hunter-gatherers; if he did, he could not speak of them as having livestock) They don’t extend individual ownership to land only because they don’t have the resources to establish individual ownership over the areas of land they use (and they do, often, try to appropriate an area to one individual band).

In maintaining (contrary to my views though the poor, benighted fellow is not aware of this) that tribal societies are anarchies, he says:

African anarchist politics are invariably characterised by the presence of slavery and sometimes of debased pariah castes. (p 52)

Would you accept that a society with slavery is an anarchy? I won’t.

George Walford

The book spoken of is Barclay (Harold) People Without Government London, Kahn & Averill with Cienfuegos Press, 1982. For the meeting referred to, see The Probable Future of Anarchism in this issue of IC.

from Ideological Commentary 27, May 1987.