From edition

Review of Klaus and Knight: 'To Hell with Culture'

The thirteen essays in this collection are concerned with representations of anarchism and anarchists, but also with their misrepresentations. As Heather Worthington notes in the second essay in the collection, ‘anarchy’ originally meant ‘without a leader, or ruler’; in a modern sense it ought, therefore, simply to mean ‘society without a government’. ‘Anarchy’, however, has become a signifier for mass disorder and destruction, often associated with bearded, bomb-throwing nihilists, usually of foreign origin. Significantly, the OED synthesises both meanings in its overtly negative primary definition: ‘Absence of government; a state of lawlessness due to the absence or inefficiency of the supreme power; political disorder.’ This socially-anxious definition, with its theme of the lack of order and authority, informs much of the discussion in the volume.

The opening essay by John Rignall confronts this characterisation of anarchism in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, the most well-known fictional treatment of the anarchist movement. The novel, Rignall suggests, presents anarchists as drawn from ‘a gallery of grotesque, pathetic or absurd creatures’, although capitalists seem to fare little better. Conrad’s fictional world thus emerges as a site of ‘radical insecurity and atomized individualism’ informed by a pervading sense of anti-humanist nihilism. The presentation of anarchism G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is equally depressing. Heather Worthington points out in her essay that anarchism – although here allowed a larger platform than in The Secret Agent – becomes subsumed within a search for self-identity, in which stereotypes of darkly-clothed Satanic destroyers serve as metaphors for mental and social chaos. As Raimund Schäffner demonstrates in his article on Ralph Bates, Marxist writers were also not averse to presenting anarchists in terms of chaos and unthinking brutality. They emerge, most often, as intellectually weak, morally questionable and resembling the Spanish pistolero in their relishing ‘of the flourish of the pistol and the knife’.

Anarchists, of course, have rarely written of anarchism in terms of authoritarian inefficiency. Rather, they have expounded notions of cooperation, solidarity, reciprocity and, above all, freedom. Herbert Read, the subject of Paul Gibbard’s essay, was throughout his poetic career concerned with individual freedom in art and society. In Read’s discussions of anarchist aesthetics there emerges, in Gibbard’s words, ‘a free art which nevertheless fulfils a social function’ – a function, that is, to bring about the formation of an anarchist revolution through art. Unlike Read’s, Aldous Huxley’s anarchism was slow to emerge. As David Goodway shows, Huxley shocked contemporary literary critics, familiar with his light satires and dystopian Brave New World, when he published his remarkable Island in 1962, a work best described as a loosely anarchist-libertarian arcadia, doomed by foreign intervention.

Anarchism, these essays indicate, is most often expressed in dualistic, oppositional formations. Katie Gramich, in her essay ‘Anarchy and Anarchism in Contemporary Welsh Fiction’, suggests that all representations of anarchism are essentially double-natured, ‘capable of metamorphosing from an optimistic political creed of fundamental human goodness and mutual aid to a marauding spectre of chaos and destruction’. Gramich’s essay itself is one of three studies of Welsh anarchist writing in the twentieth century. She depicts modern Welsh fiction as being the first successful challenge from an anarchist perspective to the socialist and nationalist ideologies inherent, she believes, in earlier Welsh industrial fiction. But like many of their earlier compatriots, authors such as Niall Griffiths and John Williams are still violently rejecting Wales as a site of pastoral holiday-making for the English bourgeoisie. Like Christian Schmitt-Klib’s later article on ‘lifestyle anarchism’ and contemporary drama, Gramich’s essay provides a thoughtful antidote to the writings on the so-called politically apathetic generation of young Britons. Welsh writers also feature in Victor Golightly’s study of John Cowper Powys’s late-surfacing anarchism and Stephen Knight’s ‘Anarcho-syndicalism in Welsh Fiction in English’. Knight demonstrates that there is not only a potent Marxist literary tradition in the South Wales valleys, as has been traditionally thought, but also a strong undercurrent of anarcho-syndicalism discernable in the literature of the first half of the last century.

What becomes apparent when reading these three articles in unison is that anarchism has functioned in Wales as an anti-colonial discourse for nearly a hundred years. In Scotland anarchism has operated differently. Scottish literary anarchism is served by two essays. The first is William K. Malcolm’s survey of the writings of the Scottish anarchist, James Leslie Mitchell, better known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the second a study of the ‘gritty-realist’ fiction of James Kelman, by H. Gustav Klaus. While lauding the use of the vernacular in Kelman’s novels and his calling to attention the politics of linguistics, the editors, in their introduction, also claim that Kelman’s ‘purely negative conception of freedom’ had resulted in an appropriation of ‘the destructive urge of anarchism, but without anarchism’s concomitant “creative passion” (Bakunin) and cooperative vision’.

The effect of this collection’s emphasis on the regional identities of anarchism is to resist the usual Anglocentric conception of British literature. But regionalism also extends to several of the essays on English anarchism, particularly Valentine Cunningham’s survey of East End literary anarchists. In what is, perhaps, the outstanding piece in the anthology, Cunningham has produced ‘a celebration of a terrain, the streets, the quarters, the topography physical and spiritual, of an anarchized cityscape’. The essay is, in part, a kind of nostalgic romance, but one that maps, wittily and effectively, the ‘loose political groupings and regroupings, these temporary alliances of activists, all this coming and going of artists with anarchic intentions among the darkness of the urban crowd’. In this sense, To Hell with Culture presents, in Cunnningham’s words, the ‘shifting leftist kaleidoscope’ of the various anarchist cultures of Britain in the twentieth century. It also effectively puts forward the editors’ case for the inclusion of the literature of anarchism ‘in the reading lists and discussions of the academy’.

H. Gustav Klaus and Stephen Knight (eds), ‘To Hell with Culture’: Anarchism and Twentieth-Century British Literature
Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005.

Rob Gossedge is a postgraduate at Cardiff University.

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