Last Christmas Eve my wife and I set out from Vancouver to Sydney. At 11:30 PM the plane put down at Honolulu airport, where we intended to break the nineteen-and-a-half-hour flight, change out of our Canadian winter tweeds and continue our journey on Christmas morning. Shuffling forward to the immigration desk, I saw the woman officer was working with a black book—a literal black book, heavy and thick. I had seen nothing like it since I entered Egypt by boat at Alexandria twenty years before, during Nasser’s paranoiac reign. When the woman took my passport and flicked the book to W, the smile she wore for tourists stiffened. She made a note on my form and pointed to a line of chairs. An attendant took our passports into an inner office where I saw a man pick them up, glance at them, and wander away. A little later he called us into his room. He looked embarrassed.

“Mr. Woodcock,” he said, giving a bureaucratic detachment to his voice, “I have to inform you that you are inadmissible into the United States of America.” I knew immediately what distant ghost had unexpectedly returned, but I still asked why. “You’re on the lookout list. I can’t tell you why.” I protested that for years I had been regularly crossing the land border from Vancouver to the state of Washington without trouble. “We’re stricter here. You could have a hearing,” he volunteered, “but it can’t take place till Tuesday.” It was Saturday; I would have to stay three days in a lockup before they could consider letting me loose in Honolulu.

The Qantas agent appeared, saying he had another plane leaving in an hour for Sydney. I could have stood my ground, insisted on being locked up for three days, and been given my hearing, and perhaps I would have got publicity for an absurd situation. But we had bookings and appointments in Australia, and at one o’clock on Christmas morning we resumed our journey. As we flew southward through the night I remembered, with a vividness I had not experienced for a quarter of a century, the long-ago events that had led, almost on the very eve of 1984, to my being treated as something near to a criminal by an American official who knew nothing of my life or even of the reasons why he was turning me away.

Back in the 1930s, like many of my generation, I made political choices that have had lasting effects on my life. I was then living in England, starting my writing career in a world shadowed by the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. The left-wing turn I took, if not inevitable, was not unusual in my generation. Graham Greene, for example, was for a time a member of a student communist club, and years later was refused entry to Puerto Rico on the strength of his past.

From the beginning I distrusted the communists, as much because of their jargon-ridden prose, which I regarded as a sign of intellectual dishonesty, as because of the Moscow trials and the sinister background of totalitarian tyranny they were beginning to reveal. When I did become active on the left I took a quite different line.

A number of left-wing writers were in a similar situation, hating fascism and the tendencies in the democratic countries that worked in alliance with it, but fearing Stalinism just as much and feeling that Labour party gradualism was a match for neither of them. Some of my friends, like Julian Symons, then a poet editing Twentieth Century Verse, became Trotskyists. Another friend, George Orwell, coming home after fighting among the POUM militia in Spain, joined an extreme left-wing socialist group, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was also the first and only political organization that I joined as a card-carrying member.

Orwell and I soon moved out of the ILP, but for different reasons. He had been following a classic revolutionary defeatist line toward the coming Second World War and had even tried to persuade Herbert Read to help him in setting up a clandestine printing press for use in wartime. But on the night of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact that drew the great totalitarian powers together on the eve of the war, he had a dream that told him he was a British patriot after all. He split with the ILP, on the grounds that it continued to denounce the war as an imperialist conflict operating against the workers’ interests.

My own opposition to the war was based not on revolutionary socialist defeatism, which taught that the liberation of the workers would come through bloodshed in the uprising that must follow the collapse of political orders at the end of a destructive war. I was a Gandhian pacifist; I believed that freedom could never be achieved by violence, but that the power of moral effort, as exemplified in Gandhi’s civil disobedience, could create a revolutionary society that would at the same time be free. I still believe that.


Rejecting violence, whether of the state or of the revolution, I became a conscientious objector. I refused to let the state—or the party, for that matter—make my moral decisions for me. I started an antiwar journal called Now, and many young dissenting writers contributed to it. The next step seemed to me inevitable. I recognized that in denying the state I had become an anarchist by philosophy. I reached the personal conclusion that that philosophy, which rejected government and coercion in favor of mutual aid and cooperation, was incompatible with violence; after all, there is surely no greater act of coercion than to kill a man.

I found myself in a minority among pacifists, for most of them seemed interested only in disobeying on the single issue of military service. Only a few agreed that resistance to war implied a shift from an acquisitive society, and these tended to express themselves by forming communities in the country.

John Middleton Murry founded such a community at Langham, in a big Edwardian country house he had bought cheaply on the edge of the Essex Marshes, and I joined it as a stage in my search for a political destination. I learned a good many useful things there: how to dig a ditch to a perfect fall, how to lay a hawthorn hedge, how to fell trees by hand. But as a social experiment Langham didn’t work because the people it drew—religious and political enthusiasts and mere cranks—had in common only their refusal to take part in war. I left after six months of almost uninterrupted strife, and went to work on the land in Cambridge, where I met Herbert Read and Alex Comfort and began my association with genuine anarchists.

Herbert Read was a kind of godfather of anarchism in Britain, the author of Poetry and Anarchism and The Philosophy of Anarchism, and he maintained friendly relations with activist groups he never joined. Through Read I made contact with the group of more directly involved intellectuals who published a paper called War Commentary and ran the Freedom Press. The anarchists have always differed from other left-wing movements in not requiring one to join a party and carry a card; one finds a place in a loosely organized affinity group which keeps equally loose contact with similar groups. I quickly developed friendships in the Freedom Press group that have influenced my thought for a lifetime.

I spent some time working with the group between 1941 and 1944, as writer and editor. I produced articles and pamphlets full of radical rhetoric that I have not allowed to be reprinted. Then I began to withdraw to devote more time to my other writing—poetry and criticism and biography—and would probably have pulled away completely if the Special Branch of Scotland Yard had not, early in 1945, raided the Freedom Press offices and arrested the four then-active editors, under a temporary wartime regulation that extended the customary definition of sedition.

A wave of anger swept over left-wing London, since the war had almost ended and such an attack on freedom of the press boded ill for the postwar years. Almost everyone of importance on the left, except the communists, became involved in the committee set up to defend the accused. Aneurin Bevan, Harold Laski, Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster, Henry Moore, and Augustus John were among those who gave their names and money. The trial was an extraordinary propaganda success for the anarchists; material published in papers with circulations of 5,000 was now aired in court and reprinted in newspapers that reached millions. The judge praised the defendants for their idealism and regretted the letter of the law that obliged him to imprison three out of the four of them.

My indignation had brought me back into active work, and with the acquitted editor, Marie-Louise Berneri, I kept War Commentary going, changed it to Freedom when the war ended, published books and pamphlets, and even ran the old printing house in the East End that the group had bought. The imprisoned editors came out in 1946, and soon I began to withdraw into my own work. By the beginning of 1948 I had no political involvements, except for taking part in a civil liberties organization, the Freedom Defense Committee, which Herbert Read, George Orwell, Julian Symons, and I, with a few other people, were running to guard against the abuse of surviving wartime regulations. In the meantime one event had taken place which contributed to the eventual situation in Honolulu last Christmas Eve.


This was the “international” anarchist congress in Bern in 1946. My companion and I had gone to Switzerland for our first postwar holiday out of England, and a young Swiss to whom I had been writing invited us to Bern to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Bakunin’s death in that city. Though it was indeed called an international congress, we and two Frenchmen—also there by chance—were the only people from outside Switzerland; most of the participants were old watchmakers from the Jura, which had been a great anarchist stronghold in Bakunin’s day, and Italian refugees living in the Ticino. A few speeches were made, but no resolutions were passed, no action was planned. We walked to the cemetery and on the windy hillside the old men made speeches over the grave of le gros Michel while two young men played a Mozart flute and violin sonata. It was an occasion at once amusing and pathetic, and it revealed how little importance anarchism retained in the world of the 1940s.

In 1949 I came home to Canada. By this time I was treating anarchism as a subject to which I had privileged access. I had already written biographies of Godwin and Kropotkin. Later I would write a similar book on Proudhon and a history of the movement, Anarchism. I had developed a degree of historian’s objectivity toward anarchism itself. I suppose I was still in the philosophical sense an anarchist, but anarchism had become for me a matter of critical point of view rather than of action. My changing perspective increasingly separated me from my former comrades.

I was vaguely aware that there were American rules against allowing anarchists to enter the United States, but when I won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951 I had no difficulty crossing the border to spend six months in California. In 1954 I was offered a teaching post at the University of Washington and again had no difficulty getting a permit or renewing it in Seattle when the term was extended to a whole year. Obviously I was not at that time on any immigration department list.

Then in 1955 I was offered a permanent appointment at the University of Washington. I had to return to Vancouver and apply for a permanent residence visa. Eventually I was called to an interview and immediately realized the consul had information the immigration officers had not possessed. I was not allowed to see his file nor was I told the source of his information. He had some of my writings. He hinted he had more damning information but did not produce it. He brought up the “international” congress, and refused to believe it was as inconsequential an affair as I had suggested. He had no interest in my present views. Only the past concerned him. I was refused a visa.

According to American law he was correct. Section 212(a)(28)(A)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act declares that anyone who is—or has been, no matter how long ago—an anarchist is inadmissible into the United States of America. Communists—though the two doctrines are polar opposites—are similarly excluded. No definition of the word “anarchist” is given in the act, nor is proof of activity needed. Merely to have declared oneself an anarchist at any time in one’s life is ground enough for exclusion. No distinction is made between those who advocate violence and those who reject it. Henry David Thoreau, if he were an alien, could be excluded on the strength of his essay, “Civil Disobedience.”

When I was refused a visa in 1955 I naturally sought support in the United States. The University of Washington held my position open and sent an emissary to Vancouver to reason with the consul. He came to me and reported: “You might be let in if you were willing to say, I’m not an anarchist any more and I deeply regret I ever was one.” It sounded too much like the recantation formula of the Holy Inquisition for my taste.

I also got in touch with friends in New York. Dwight Macdonald helped to organize a letter to John Foster Dulles, which was signed by Reinhold Niebuhr, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, and a score of other academic luminaries; even McGeorge Bundy wrote his own letter of protest. Dulles did not trouble to reply. I merely received a brutally obtuse letter from the local consul repeating what he had said before.

During the 1970s I began to test the American border. I crossed regularly and freely. I flew into the US and passed airport checks without trouble. And then, last Christmas, after twenty-eight years, my name turned up again in the Honolulu black book. Why was it there, and not on the computers at other places? Have old lists, under Reagan, been revived and redistributed?

I have no answer to that question, but I have learned, since then, that many other writers and intellectuals are in the same position because of events in the 1950s. The Canadian list of more than three thousand once included Pierre Trudeau, because he attended an economics conference in Moscow; his name was quickly removed after he became prime minister. The attorney general of Manitoba, Roland Penner, is still on the list because of the communist affiliations of his parents; he travels on a special diplomatic visa. The ninety-seven-year-old poet and painter, Barker Fairley, one of the most respected Canadians, is there because once, long ago, he was married to a woman who had been a Communist. Many writers from European, African, Asian, and Latin American countries are in the same position. Pablo Neruda was inadmissible. Gabriel García Márquez has recently been turned away. The list could go on for pages.

There is no automatic process by which the black book is revised. Names presumably stay on the list even after their owners die. Getting off the list requires either an act of Congress, as happened with Arthur Koestler, who had been a Communist during the Thirties, or an application for defector status (amounting to a recantation), which nonetheless is difficult to obtain. Otherwise, exclusion can be waived only in special cases for specified periods of time. This too is a cumbersome legal process, involving a great deal of groveling, and has no guarantee of success.

Only a change in the law can deal with the situation, and some American legislators and organizations are in fact very conscious of the need to eliminate the ideological exclusion clauses of the immigration act. Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts has introduced a bill, HR 4.509, with this intent; the first hearings were held on June 28, and more will follow. Meanwhile, on the initiative of the ACLU a conference of more than forty organizations will meet in Washington on September 18 to discuss action to repeal the McCarran Act.* Some among us who are excluded will attend the Congress from across the frontier by television link.

Perhaps at last the need for the tedious waiver procedure, which many of us find too humiliating to pursue, will be brought to an end and American and foreign writers and intellectuals will once again mingle freely without discrimination for ideological reasons.

This Issue

September 27, 1984