Anarchy in the UK

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If wikipedia is to believed, John Lydon was merely searching for a rhyme to “antichrist” when he wrote “Anarchy in the UK.” It seems plausible, and also fitting that when Dave Mustaine of Megadeth covered it, he simply made up the words he didn’t understand. While I’m sure there is a rich intellectual tradition to anarchism, the ones that spout the loudest about it don’t really seem to know much at all. As the socialist league in the UK was disintegrating in 1889, William Morris wrote:

“the active (?) members in London mostly consider themselves Anarchists, but don’t know anything about Socialism and go about ranting revolution in the streets, which is as likely to happen as the conversion of Englishmen from stupidity to quickwittedness.”

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.522

Given the politics of the occupy movement and several attempts to address real social problems in the last few years, it seems as if the touting of “anarchism” (which seems to me to read as synonymous with radical libertarianism, or better, individualism) tends to obscure most attempts to create actual change. Morris clearly felt that the main job of his socialist league was education—  to “make socialists” by educating people about the oppressive nature of the capitalist system that dominated them. The root cause of economic misery is the economic system, not any abstract notion of “government” as the anarchist/libertarians propose. Morris did not favor a state based socialism, by any means, but an individual socialism that would require an educated polis. The details are sketched in News from Nowhere. Where I get confused is the fact that Morris tends to lump the anarchists with the parliamentarians:

“The truth must be face, the ‘Communists of the League’ are in a very weak position in the Socialist party at present. We have been damaged both by parlementaires & Anarchists, & I don’t think we are strong enough to run a paper; although, numbers apart, there is something to be said for us”

ibid., p. 519

Yes, I do think there is something to be said for them myself. It’s hard to sort through it all. The difficulty of reading a massive book like Thompson’s is that there are so may ways to slice through the contents. After reflecting on Morris’s distaste for Anarchy, which I share, I find myself now wondering why he also dismissed the movement toward “simplicity” claiming that the simple folks were, well, simple. I didn’t save a note in those sections, and I don’t want to reread the entire book to find them. I’ve moved on to a different, less challenging book these past few days.

I’m not through with Morris by any means, but I wanted to try to sort some other things out.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted February 6, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I left an Earth First meeting after a few too many cries of “Anarchy.” Libertarianism alway sounded good, but I nevev realy agreed most of the poeple who call themselves Libertarians.

    Simplicity is good, but like most ideals I’ve had a hard time living up to it. I love “things” much more than I should, particularly “tools of the trade.”

  2. Posted February 7, 2015 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Loren – I always felt that present day Libertarians, particularly those of the Randian crowd, are simple anarchists in disguise. Gussying up a distasteful appellation for one supposedly less so.

    Jeff – have you read Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Defense_of_Anarchism)? He maintains a blog The Philosopher’s Stone at http://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.ca/

  3. Jeff
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    No, I haven’t read Robert Paul Wolff, and I hesitate to simply because I have a tendency to joust with everything I run into.

    I hadn’t been interested in socialism/communism until making friends with some new people, and running into it a lot in some historical research. Now, I find that some political theories do have a distinct impact on issues I’m interested in. My interest, because of that, is fairly limited. Thanks for the pointer though, Doug.

    Loren- as you might suspect, simplicity (as a philosophical/political construct) is where I’m turning next. That’ll be pretty apparent with the next entry. Theorizing “tools” and “work” is actually what brought me to this in a twisted way, and it’s hard to get things I’m thinking of to gel.

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