Underground - 1966
Sometimes you can go months without coming across any really great political pamphlets - and then you strike gold. Twice.
I've blogged below about the treasures I came across last weekend ... when I was also was able to buy an early (1890) copy of the Yiddish newspaper 'Der Arbeter Fraint' (The Worker's Friend), and even more spectacular, a copy of Henry Seymour's 'The Anarchist' from 1886.
Today at Walden Books in Chalk Farm, I picked up a handful of much more recent gems - of which this is my favourite.
This is the first - perhaps the only - issue of 'Underground', dating it seems from 1966. Here's what the editorial comment says:
underground's first aim is to print the work of young authors or poets, whether published previously or not, alongside that of older writers whose influence justifies their inclusion in a magazine aimed primarily at the young. Secondly we hope to provide a forum for libertarian ideas without consenting to follow any exclusive party line.
It was published by a group of Oxford students - the editorial board (and forgive me, i don't recognise any of the names) consisted of: Tony Allan, Kris Jastrzebski, Rick Blake, John Edge, Peter Whewell, Barbra Norden and Penelope Cloutte. Anyone able to tell me any more about the editors or the journal?
The cover, of course, caught my attention - very 1960s. I suspect it was designed by Humphrey Weightman. And the contents are also really interesting. Most of the first half of the journal is given over to a republication of Sir Herbert Read's (surely he was the only anarchist ever to accept a knighthood) 'Anarchism in the Affluent Society'. The poems that follow include two by Adrian Mitchell - I've posted one of these below (the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh attended the Canada Centennial in the summer of 1966, which probably provided the cocasion for Adrian Mitchell's verse).
LATER (May 2014) - This post has attracted comments from three of those who published 'underground' almost forty years ago - and now a scholar at a Canadian university has been in touch about Sir Herbert Read's essay included in this issue, and here explains its significance:
Herbert Read’s ‘Anarchism in the Affluent Society’
Originally written as a speech delivered to the Federacion Libertaria Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1962, Herbert Read’s short article ‘Anarchism in the Affluent Society’ was reprinted in the ephemeral Oxford-based magazine Underground four years later. As writing was Read’s primary source of income, he was a frequent recycler: regularly fusing together shorter pieces, and producing a number of collections of his occasional essays. Despite this, ‘Anarchism in the Affluent Society’ was not included in any of the political collections that Read assembled after he delivered the paper in Argentina. When revising his wartime essay To Hell With Culture in 1963, for instance, for its new life in a lengthier volume examining the commodification of modern culture, Read designed to include ‘Anarchism and the Affluent Society’. It would later appear under the rather pallid title ‘Anarchism and Modern Society’ in Irving Louis Horowtiz’s unorthodox reader The Anarchists in 1964, translated from the Spanish-language periodical Reconstruir.
Given the short-lived nature of Underground, and Read’s failure to revisit the essay, it is a piece of Readian ephemera that scholars have overlooked. I, for one, was unaware of the article until I came across Read’s own copy of the address, written in his neat handwriting in an old exercise book, which is currently part of the collection of his personal papers held at the University of Victoria. Perhaps judging the essay unexceptional, Read decided it wasn’t worth thinking about any more, and set it aside to concentrate on other projects, like the definitive version of his autobiography The Contrary Experience, which was published the following year.
Often, unfinished articles, and those marginal pieces that writers quickly forget, are especially revealing. Lacking the polish of repeated revision, short reflections on particular themes can cast light on the writer’s body of work as a whole, showing the enduring importance of certain ideas, or show a thinker struggling to keep certain sets of ideas relevant in shifting political and intellectual contexts.
Read’s essay is significant for this reason, particularly given the overall framing of the piece as an analysis of the relevance of anarchist politics in the ‘affluent society’. This term, he notes at the outset, is a ‘fashionable’ one, and Read was probably inspired by J.K. Galbraith in adopting it, who had published his famous work The Affluent Society in 1958. Read describes the affluent society as North American and Western European phenomenon, based upon ‘a union between the direct power of the state and the productive organization of monopoly capitalism’ that had attained ‘the highest standard of living that has yet been capable of satisfying the population of these countries’.
Read’s argument is, unsurprisingly, that while the ‘material condition of the working classes’ has improved, their ‘spiritual impoverishment is equally evident’. He goes on to diagnose a lack of ‘principles’ at the heart of contemporary politics, where governments democratic governments ‘change name but not purposes’, resulting in a politics of ‘expediency’ – actions guided solely by the desire to ‘maintain a high standard of living.’
This might seem a legitimate ambition, but for Read the triumph of the politics of expediency had enervating effects, producing a kind of spiritual lassitude. With this in view, in his paper he reasserted the value of anarchist philosophy as an outcry against this fate. Unusually for him, Read developed this theme through a relatively detailed discussion of the articulation of these ideas in the historical anarchist tradition. The form of Read’s argument is interesting, therefore, as it offers a restatement of his conception of anarchism’s core ideas, and the tradition’s key thinkers.
Both of these are idiosyncratic, and would have been met with scepticism by other anarchists. Central to his vision of anarchism is a commitment to non-violence, based on the assumption that the state was the embodiment of violence. He supports this by saying that ‘Lao-tse, Chuang-tze, Jesus Christ, Tolstoy, Kropotkin, and Gandhi’ had all recognised this truth, and that anarchists must never lose sight of the idea that ‘force corrupts the human mind’. The only legitimate action against the state is therefore also non-violent, and he closed his talk by reiterating Gandhi’s ‘enormous’ debt to the anarchist tradition, and concluding that ‘I cannot conceive of an anarchist movement in the world today that does take its departure from the point reached by Gandhi’.
The other central theme of his essay stems from this argument: the idea that the best way to popularise anarchism was to show it in action, as an ethos of peaceful ‘mutual aid’. This idea was based on a tactical assessment that anarchists cannot ‘contradict at least two thousand years of political evolution’ and change this process through ‘direct political means’. Spain, Palestine, and Cuba, he continued, all demonstrated that ‘splits or fissures’ could develop in centralised states, but he added that their ‘tragic’ history should be remembered, and that these examples should ‘not give us false hope’. For Read then, the duty of anarchists was to resist ‘conformity, fixity, and centralization’ in the present, and expound their principles of mutual aid and peaceful cooperation, albeit acknowledging that the road to anarchism would be a long, and perhaps endless, one. But as he said elsewhere, even if this vision proved to be a mirage, ‘we must remember that the mirage gives energy and direction to a man lost in the desert.’
Matthew S. Adams, University of Victoria
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