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Anarchism (Broadview Encore Editions) Paperback – 1 Nov 2004

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"Woodcock's thoughtful appraisals, careful research, and graceful writing skillfully demonstrate the importance of anarchism as a historical movement." -- Mark Leier, Director, Centre for Labour Studies, Simon Fraser University

About the Author

George Woodcock (1912-1995), internationally acclaimed intellectual historian and man of letters, was the author of dozens of books, including the classic biography Gabriel Dumont: The Metis Chief and His Lost World and the Governor-General's Award-winning George Orwell: The Crystal Spirit.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Solid introduction to libertarian political thought 8 Jun. 2008
By Steven A. Peterson - Published on
Format: Paperback
Every so often when I was a full-time teacher, I taught a course in libertarian political theory. This volume was a standard textbook that I used (there is now a much more recent version, if I read Amazon correctly). Woodcock defines the subject of this work along the following lines (Page 13): ". . .a system of social thought, aiming at fundamental changes in the structure of society and particularly. . .at the replacement of the authoritarian state by some sort of nongovernmental co-operation between free individuals." Once thus stated, of course, many readers would instantly dismiss the project described. However, this is a very nice overview of libertarian/anarchist thinkers and, as such, serves a useful purpose.

The organizational structure is pretty clean. His prologue outlines Woodcock's view of the subject matter. Then, Part I, "The Idea." Here, the author examines the political thought of a number of key thinkers in this strand of political thought. He begins with the deeper historical predecessors, including the "Diggers" in English history, Thomas Paine, and Jacques Roux, inter alia. Among those whose work he summarizes and assesses in more detail: William Godwin, the man of reason; Max Stirner, the egoist; Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the intellectual father of syndicalism; Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian nobleman who became an anarchist; Peter Kropotkin, a prince in Russia, who used evolutionary theory to justify his anarchist perspective; Leo Tolstoy (yet another Russian) and his Christian anarchism.

After perusing individual thinkers, Woodcock then examines anarchism/libertarianism across a variety of societies--from France to Italy to Spain to Russia, and elsewhere (including the United States). For each venue, he notes the development of the theory in historical terms and leading figures in the movement.

Finally, his epilogue. He reflects upon the meaning of the work of individuals and the movements across different societies.

For a solid introduction to the subject, this serves well up to the time of its publication (in the early 1960s). For those interested in a general overview of the subject, this serves well.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Incisive Survey 10 Mar. 2000
By TheIrrationalMan - Published on
Format: Paperback
Though it has now been supplanted, or to put it more mildly, updated, by Peter Marshall's more recent "Demanding the Impossible", Woodcock's history remains nonetheless an incisive and extremely readable survey. A superb introduction to anarchist thought.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By Steven H Propp - Published on
Format: Paperback
George Woodcock (1912-1995) was a Canadian anarchist thinker, essayist and literary critic. This 1962 book was the first post-War history of anarchism. He wrote in the Prologue, "Few doctrines or movements have been so confusedly understood in the public mind, and few have presented in their own variety of approach so much excuse for confusion. That is why, before beginning to trace the actual historical course of anarchism, as a theory and a movement, I start with a chapter of definition. What is anarchism? And what is it not?"

He says that all anarchists would accept the proposition that "man naturally contains within him all the attributes which make him capable of living in freedom and social concord... clearly those who attempt to impose man-made laws.. are the real enemies of society, and the anarchist who rebels against them, even to the extent of violence and destruction, is not antisocial after all." (Pg. 22-23)

He observes that "After (Peter) Kropotkin, (William) Godwin became recognized by the more intellectual anarchists as one of their predecessors, but his influence, which was potent, has mostly lain elsewhere." (Pg. 60) Godwin was, however, one of the first to describe clearly the link between property and power "which has made anarchists enemies of capitalism as well as of the state." (Pg. 75) Michael Bakunin, on the other hand, "failed, to begin, where most of the great anarchists have succeeded---as a writer." (Pg. 146) Bakunin is the anarchist who is associated with violence, when in books such as his 'Principles of Revolution' he stated that the methods to be utilized were "extremely varied---poison, the knife, the rope, etc." (Pg. 173)

Woodcock laments the "rather pitiful efforts" of anarchists in the late 19th century, although he suggests that this "meagerness" was in part attributable to "a persistent effort on the part of the anarchists to infiltrate the congresses of the Second International, which the social democrats were then in the process of establishing." (Pg. 261) He observes that a "specifically anarchist movement" did not even appear in Russia until the middle of the 1890's." (Pg. 399)

About the turning of French anarchists of the 1890s to violence, Woodcock notes soberly that "their shadows walk darkly beside any historian of anarchism; he cannot dismiss them as intruders on the road. By the right of tragedy alone they deserve their place." (Pg. 307) More optimistically, he notes that all Anarchism has "a moral-religious element which distinguishes it from ordinary political movements," and that this tendency is "far more strongly developed in Spain than elsewhere." (Pg. 382)

Turning at last to Latin America, Northern Europe, Britain, and the United States, he observes happily that "Anarchism has thriven best in lands of the sun, where it is easy to dream of golden ages of ease and simplicity, yet where the clear light also heightens the shadows of existing misery." (Pg. 425) Nevertheless, English anarchism has never been anything else than a "chorus of voices crying in the wilderness, though some of the voices have been remarkable." (Pg. 439)

In the final chapter, he poses the questions, Why did the movement founded by Bakunin fail? and "Is there any reason why the anarchist idea... should survive it?" (Pg. 469) To this end, he suggests that "to acknowledge the existence and the overbearing force of the movement toward universal centralization... is not to accept it. If human values are to survive, a counterideal must be posed..." (Pg. 475)

Woodcock's excellent book is essential reading for anyone interested in anarchism.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Valuable Text for Anarchist History 19 Mar. 2013
By eddie.calendula - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Woodcock's Anarchism was first published in 1962 but contains some updates from two decades later. Its historical gaze is fairly in depth for the most part, and it is helpful to approach this text with some basic prior knowledge of anarchism. Overall it is a great resource in understanding anarchism as a historical movement, bringing attention to events and people that are largely overlooked elsewhere. The only downside of Woodcock's detailed research is that the reader may tire of specific names of journals and dates and other overly-particular information from time to time.

The book begins with an effective introduction that anticipates the broader trends in anarchist history and its key players. The next part of the book focuses on the lives of individuals who contributed important or distinct threads to the anarchist narratives, and the last section chronologies libertarian movements by nation or region.

I think this is a terrific treasure of anarchist history, however it should not escape a couple of critiques. As somebody more familiar with anarchist activities of the last couple decades, I found the absence of women and women's issues to be a blatant gap. No doubt the movement itself was historically hostile to women at times and historical artifacts equating first wave feminism with classical anarchism are exceptional. The book of course does include women--Louise Michel and Emma Goldman being its principle celebrities for the time period covered--but it offers little explanation for or admission of their underrepresentation.
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