Three Essays on Anarchism by Charlotte Wilson. Introduction and biographical note by Nicolas Walter. First published as separate essays in 1886. Compiled and published in 1979 by Cienfuegos Press, Over the Water, Sanday, Orkney, KW172BL This eBook (Kindle) edition published 2013 by ChristieBooks, PO Box 35, Hastings, East Sussex, TN341ZS. ISBN 978-0-904564-26-6
Charlotte Wilson was the principal founder of Freedom Press, and the first editor of the anarchist newspaper Freedom, in 1886. She had been writing about anarchism in the socialist press since 1884, and like the work of her better-known contemporary Peter Kropotkin, whom she invited to England to join the Freedom group, her anarchist writings are scholarly, original, thoughtful and clear.
This volume of three essays, edited by the late Nicolas Walter, is an important addition to the body of anarchist works originating from the turn of the century period that boasts such thinkers as Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, etc. In it Wilson, thoughtfully and clearly rephrases some key ideas about authority, property, work, etc. Charlotte Wilson was an important figure in introducing anarchist-communist ideas to a British audience. Together with Peter Kropotkin she founded Freedom in 1886 – and was its primary editor and publisher for over eight years. She was also involved in establishing anarchist discussion groups in London and encouraging other local groups, and was an active lecturer and debater. Interestingly, she was the model for characters in a number of political novels, including A Girl Among the Anarchists and John Henry Mackay’s The Anarchists where she is most commonly described as a “little woman dressed becomingly in black.”
The highly publicised trials of the French anarchists (including Kropotkin) in 1883 seemed to be the catalyst for Wilson’s acceptance of both Socialism and Anarchism as her own ideology. Active, initially, within the sphere of middle class intellectuals in the reformist Fabian Society, she finally split from them when they opted for the parliamentary path. Her “anarchist faction” within the Fabians, which fellow member George Bernard Shaw called a “sort of influenza of Anarchism which soon spread through the society,” proved enduring, and when Kropotkin was released from prison in 1886, Wilson invited him to come to Britain to join the “circle of English anarchists” that had formed the previous year. Once they had split from the Fabian Society the group then launched an anarchist paper, and so began Freedom and the Freedom Press, which attracted such contributors as Jean Grave, Louise Michel, Dyer D. Lum, and Errico Malatesta.
For Wilson, anarchism was a specific tenet within Socialism that fell opposite the ‘collectivist’ Socialist viewpoint: a State Socialism that “supports a strong central administration.” Her essay ‘What Socialism Is’ makes the anarchist argument by stressing the “individual as well as social, internal as well as external” context in which radical change must occur.
Unique in her analysis is the emphasis on the psychological aspects of oppression as well as the material. The “inward attitude of slavish adoration” towards authority is one way this is manifested, which she elaborates on in ‘Anarchism’: “After the annihilation of the oppressive institutions of the present, what social forces and social conditions will remain, and how are they likely to be modified and developed?” putting emphasis again on the psychology of power and the importance of social pressures in the development of individuals and society. Similarly, she acknowledges public opinion, the “common moral sense of [human] kind” in its ideal form, as a powerful social pressure which will have to be utilized in favour of positive social change: “For a radical change must have come over opinion as to the nature of property and public duty before the Revolution can succeed.”
What stands out in these essays is her firm belief in humanity’s need to break free from oppression: “Freedom is the necessary preliminary to any true and equal human association.” “The vitiation of social life is produced by the domination of man by man. The spirit of domination is the disintegrating element which constantly tending to break up society, is the fundamental cause of confusion and disorder.”
Convinced that we already have the capabilities to live free from authority – found in the fraternity of social bonds – Charlotte Wilson said that anarchism was “not a Utopian dream of the future, but a faith for the present,” in that its humble first aim “is to assert and make good the dignity of the individual human being.” Yet, “Its one purpose is by direct personal action to bring about a revolution in every department of human existence, social, political and economic. Every man owes it to himself and to his fellows to be free.”