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George Woodcock (1912 – 1995)


Canadian writer of political biography and history, essayist, literary critic, poet, anarchist, and pacifist.
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George Woodcock
Like such titles as Christian and Quaker, "anarchist" was in the end proudly adopted by one of those against whom it had been used in condemnation. In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, that stormy, argumentative individualist who prided himself on being a man of paradox and a provoker of contradiction, published the work that established him as a pioneer libertarian thinker. It was What Is Property?, in which he gave his own question the celebrated answer: "Property is theft." In the same book he became the first man willingly to claim the title of anarchist.
Undoubtedly Proudhon did this partly in defiance, and partly in order to exploit the word's paradoxical qualities. He had recognized the ambiguity of the Greek anarchos, and had gone back to it for that very reason — to emphasize that the criticism of authority on which he was about to embark need not necessarily imply an advocacy of disorder. The passages in which he introduces "anarchist" and "anarchy" are historically important enough to merit quotation, since they not merely show these words being used for the first time in a socially positive sense, but also contain in germ the justification by natural law which anarchists have in general applied to their arguments for a non-authoritarian society.
Woodcock quotes
While we can doubtless look to some wide changes in the shapes of social relationships as a result of contemporary libertarian movements, and especially to an increase in workers' involvement in decision-making at the place of work and in the development of forms of democracy more direct and more sensitive to modern conditions, it is unlikely that the general outcome will be the wholly non-governmental society of which libertarians now and in the past have dreamed. The value of anarchism is likely to remain primarily in its force as an inspiring idea, an activating vision…
Woodcock
Proudhon was a voluntary hermit in the political world of the nineteenth century. He sought no followers, indignantly rebuffed suggestions that he had created as system of any kind, and almost certainly rejoiced in the fact that he accepted the title anarchist in virtual isolation.




Woodcock George quotes
Proudhon goes on to suggest that the real laws by which society functions have nothing to do with authority; they are not imposed from above, but stem from the nature of society itself. He sees the free emergence of such laws as the goal of social endeavour. … Proudhon conceiving a natural law of balance operating within society, rejects authority as an enemy and not a friend of order, and throws back at the authoritarians the accusations leveled at anarchists; in the process he adopts the title he hopes to have cleared of obloquy.
Woodcock George
Anarchism, nihilism, and terrorism are often mistakenly equated, and in most dictionaries will be found at least two definitions of the anarchist. One presents him as a man who believes that government must die before freedom can live. The other dismisses him as a mere promoter of disorder who offers nothing in place of the order he destroys. In popular thought the latter conception is far more widely spread. The stereotype of the anarchist is that of the cold-blooded assassin who attacks with dagger or bomb the symbolic pillars of established society. Anarchy, in popular parlance, is malign chaos.
Yet malign chaos is clearly very far from the intent of men like Tolstoy and Godwin, Thoreau and Kropotkin, whose social theories have all been described as anarchist. There is an obvious discrepancy between the stereotype anarchist and the anarchist as we most often see him in reality; that division is due partly to semantic confusions and partly to historical misunderstandings.
George Woodcock quotes
For out of black
soul's night have stirred
dawn's cold gleam,
morning's singing bird.
George Woodcock
Because anarchism is in its essence an anti-dogmatic and unstructured cluster of related attitudes, which does not depend for its existence on any enduring organization, it can flourish when circumstances are favourable and then, like a desert plant, lie dormant for seasons and even for years, waiting for the rains that will make it burgeon. Unlike an ordinary political faith, in which the church-party becomes the vehicle of the dogma, it does not need a movement to carry it forward…
Woodcock George quotes
Orwell can only be understood as an essentially quixotic man. … He defended, passionately and as a matter of principle, unpopular causes. Often without regard to reason he would strike out against anything which offended his conceptions of right, justice and decency, yet, as many who crossed lances with him had reason to know, he could be a very chivalrous opponent, impelled by a sense of fair play that would lead to public recantation of accusations he had eventually decided were unfair. In his own way he was a man of the left, but he attacked its holy images as fervently as he did those of the right. And however much he might on occasion find himself in uneasy and temporary alliance with others, he was — in the end — as much a man in isolation as Don Quixote. His was the isolation of every man who seeks the truth diligently, no matter how unpleasant its implications may be to others or even to himself.
Woodcock
Throughout his long life, George Woodcock stressed the primacy of the moral over the political and steadfastly defended the natural human tendency to rebel against artificial restraints. He never doubted Kropotkin' s confidence in mutual aid and the great maxims of Proudhon continued to guide him until the end: "Anarchy is Order" but "Property is Theft".
Woodcock George
It is the general idea put forward by Proudhon in 1840 that unites him with the later anarchists, with Bakunin and Kropotkin, and also with certain earlier and later thinkers, such as Godwin, Stirner, and Tolstoy, who evolved anti-governmental systems without accepting the name of anarchy; and it is in this sense that I shall treat anarchism, despite its many variations: as a system of social thought, aiming at fundamental changes in the structure of society and particularly — for this is the common element uniting all its forms — at the replacement of the authoritarian state by some form of non-governmental cooperation between free individuals.
George Woodcock
Anarchism is a creed inspired and ridden by paradox, and thus, while its advocates theoretically reject tradition, they are nevertheless very much concerned with the ancestry of their doctrine. This concern springs from the belief that anarchism is a manifestation of natural human urges, and that it is the tendency to create authoritarian institutions which is the transient aberration. If one accepts this view, then anarchism cannot merely be a phenomenon of the present; the aspect of it we perceive in history is merely one metamorphosis of an element constant in society.




George Woodcock quotes
When I die
let the black rag fly
raven falling
from the sky.
George Woodcock
"Whoever denies authority and fights against it is an anarchist," said Sebastien Faure. The definition is tempting in its simplicity, but simplicity is the first thing to guard against in writing a history of anarchism. Few doctrines or movements have been so confusedly understood in the public mind, and few have presented in their own variety of approach and action so much excuse for confusion.
Woodcock quotes
Gandhi on many occasions declared himself an anarchist — of his own kind — and he created, partly from his readings of Tolstoy and Kropotkin and partly on the basis of Indian communitarian traditions, the plan of a decentralized society based on autonomous village communes.
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