A flawless reminder of life left of the left

Social Policy - A Short History of Anarchism
October 10, 1997

Max Nettlau was born in Vienna in 1865, the son of a Prussian gardener, began as an academic philologist, inherited a fortune and became an independent scholar, lived in Britain and other countries for many years then returned to Austria, lost his fortune after the first world war but continued as a scholar, moved to the Netherlands, and died in Amsterdam in 1944. He passed from liberalism through socialism to anarchism, and was an active member of the international anarchist movement from 1885 until his death, writing for many papers in several languages. He not only founded anarchist historiography, but made what are still the most important contributions to it for more than half a century, though more than half a century after his death his work is still little appreciated, especially in the English-speaking world. (Indeed A Short History of Anarchism is his first book to appear in a proper English edition.) Nettlau is often called the Herodotus of anarchism, but he was rather its Thucydides. His life work was based on the omnivorous collection and omniscient study of printed and manuscript materials and also on personal acquaintance and detailed interviews (or written questionnaires) with almost all the leaders of the movement.

Nettlau produced the pioneering biography of Michael Bakunin, the main founder of the anarchist movement, and biographies of several other leading figures, the first bibliography of anarchism, specialist articles and books on various aspects and episodes of anarchist history, and a long autobiography. Finally, from 1925 to 1935, he wrote a gigantic general history of anarchy, Geschichte der Anarchie. The first three volumes were published from 1925 to 1931, the fourth and fifth volumes only from 1981 to 1984 (there are now corrected paperback editions of the first three and revised editions of the last two); the final four volumes are currently in process of publication.

This masterpiece is the starting-point for all subsequent anarchist historiography, though it has tended to be dutifully listed in bibliographies rather than actually used. Unfortunately, for most of its likely readers, it was written in German (and difficult German) and has never been translated into any other language. However, Nettlau wrote in 1932-34 a one-volume summary, which was first published in Spanish in 1935, has been translated into several other languages, and now at last appears in English.

There are two serious problems with this book. The first is that it is inevitably out of date. For one thing, the narrative effectively ends with the first world war, and a great deal happened after that, especially in Russia, Italy, Latin America, and above all Spain. For another thing, much new research has subsequently been done by many scholars on several aspects of the earlier period. The other problem is that Nettlau wrote it with a constant eye on the full version of his history, and there are frequent frustrating references to longer treatment in its relevant volumes. Nevertheless, despite all these disadvantages, this is the best one-volume account of anarchism as it actually was at the time, rather than as later historians have often imagined it to be.

This edition is particularly valuable on its own account. The translation was originally made by Ida Pilat Isca, an American anarchist of Russian origin. An early and very imperfect version attributed to "Scott Johnson" was published in a clumsy and very expensive edition in New York in 1979. After the translator's death in 1980, her companion Valerio Isca, an American anarchist of Italian origin, arranged for its publication in Britain. It has taken all this time for it to appear. Meanwhile the text has been edited and revised several times by several people, and has also been corrected and supplemented by Heiner Becker, an independent scholar in Germany who is now the main expert on and publisher of Nettlau. The supplementary material includes a very well-informed biographical introduction and bibliographical appendix on Nettlau himself, and a detailed bibliography of all the works and biographical index of all the persons mentioned in the text. There are almost no errors in the book, it is elegantly produced (unfortunately only in paperback), and it is remarkably cheap. What is needed now is a similar English edition of the full version, following the completion of the publication of the original German volumes. But here at least and at last is the best-informed short introduction to the subject Meanwhile anarchism has continued to exist, though it may seem to bear little resemblance to the militant movement described with such care by Nettlau. Yet there are continuities. Nettlau mentions Federica Montseny, one of the few woman leaders of the Spanish movement; she died only in 1994. He mentions the Jewish movements in Britain and the United States, and the free schools they founded; Nellie Dick, the last surviving founder of such a school, in the East End of London in 1912, died only in 1995 (at the age of 102). He mentions the British paper Freedom, which was founded by a group including Peter Kropotkin in 1886; it is run by a group including Vernon Richards, who worked with Nettlau back in 1936.

Another link is Colin Ward, the best-known anarchist writer in this country, who has been involved with Freedom since the second world war. Yet another independent scholar, he was appointed visiting centennial professor of housing and social policy at the London School of Economics in 1996. The texts of his lectures and seminars there have been conveniently collected in a large-format booklet, which sums up his work over more than half a century. Social Policy: An Anarchist Approach discusses the way the welfare state destroyed the welfare society, the various ways in which people actively housed themselves and one another before they were passively housed by the authorities, the way in which the provision of water symbolises the provision of all essential services, and concludes with a personal preview of "21st-century anarchism". Such themes have often appeared in earlier articles and talks, and some are also treated at greater length in Ward's books - Reflected in Water has just been published in Cassell's Global Issues series - but this is a convenient summary of his radical but reasonable libertarianism.

In the present political climate, when it is hard to know what is left of the left, some form of anarchism may yet be seen to fill the gap between all the failed orthodoxies. Nettlau has told us about its past; perhaps Ward is telling us about its future.

Nicolas Walter is an independent scholar.

Social Policy: An Anarchist Response

Author - Colin Ward
ISBN - -
Publisher - London School of Economics
Price - £4.00
Pages - 62

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