George Walford: Anarchism in Series

Thinkers fall into two groups: unifiers and dichotomizers, otherwise lumpers and splitters. Anarchists stand on both sides of this fence, lumping their opponents together as supporters of the state and splitting their own movement off as independent of them. This leaves anarchism rootless, with no sufficient explanation for its presence, and in any case it doesn’t stand up to examination. The other movements differ from each other and each of them has something in common with anarchism; they can usefully be seen as a series of stages leading towards it.

This movement has no Leader, no Central Committee, no appointed body formulating policy or doctrine. It seeks, and endeavours to practice, unrestricted freedom of thought and expression. You can put forward any ideas you like, and nobody has power to shut you up. Almost certainly somebody will challenge what you say but they will meet you on equal ground, one individual to another. Anarchists constantly disagree among themselves and, more than that, they welcome disagreement. They divide up into little groups, each of them with its own ideas which it asserts against the others, and when they come together they commonly start an argument. Anarchists believe in full political and intellectual freedom, accepting that each person ought to have the right to promote their own ideas, however unorthodox or unpopular; acceptance of this principle in its full strength forms one of the distinguishing features of the movement. The other political movements, however, do not totally reject it. They accept it in varying degrees, and in this respect they form a series, with anarchism at one end.

Conservatives would allow little political freedom. They want a strong police force and strict control of official secrets, they try to control education, to make sure children learn to respect and obey the authorities. The leaders know best, and we should trust them to formulate social policy, not press our demands upon them or try to take affairs into our own hands. The prospect of a society without strong leaders and firm political restrictions disturbs conservatives; to them anarchy means chaos, the end of the law and order they value.

Liberalism believes in political equality and open discussion, favours nonconformist religion rather than the established church, and reckons that the state interferes too much in political and intellectual life. A liberal, John Stuart Mill, produced the classic statement of the principle that society ought not interfere with individuals except to prevent harm to others. While conservatives regard anarchism with horror, tolerating it to some degree only because their principles oblige them to do so, liberalism inclines towards respect for it. Liberalism retains a regard for the state and it values independent nationhood; these features set it well apart from anarchism, but it still stands closer than does conservatism.

Next the socialist movement, an elastic phrase that I use here to mean the common-ownership part of the Labour Party, together with other people and groups pursuing similar ends by gradualist means. This movement goes beyond demanding more political freedom within the present social structure; it aims at setting up, by a series of cumulative reforms, a social system which takes freedom rather than control for granted. Its members already assume such freedom for themselves, the socialists in the Labour Party displaying an independence of the leadership, and a willingness to assert their own views against it, not found among conservatives or liberals. Seen from the conservative position their disorderly rebelliousness looks much like the conservative idea of anarchism.

Communism pursues an end having much in common with that of labour-socialism, but by more aggressive means. It advocates revolution as the answer to anticipated resistance, and again the members of the movement help themselves to the freedom they work for; where labour-socialists hover on the verge of schism, communists (a term used here to include Trotskyists and other revolutionary socialist movements) rather plunge into it. The movement exists as a number of conflicting groups, a structure standing closer to that of anarchism than does the unity, precarious though it be, of labour-socialism. Where communists have control of the state power they find themselves facing a majority of non-communists, and rather than abandon their objectives they impose “democratic centralism” and “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” allowing less political freedom than appears in the capitalist democracies. But this comes as a temporary departure from the intended course; communism looks forward to a time, after it has overcome resistance, when the state will wither away. Its ultimate objective sounds much like anarchy, and you can hardly say that of any other movement. In its thinking about political freedom communism stands closer to anarchism than any of the other movements do.

We haven’t yet completed our series. What about all those who don’t support any of these movements, the non-political people? These have little use for political freedom themselves and they don’t advocate it for others. They favour newspapers which present anarchists as extremists working to destroy society, wreckers who ought to be jailed, or shot, or blown up with their own bombs. The non-politicals stand farther from anarchism than any of the political movements, out on the far side of conservatism. The series runs: non-politicals, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism.

The degree of political freedom advocated increases consistently along our range of movements, and when you find a steady progression running through six stages you’ve probably got hold of something significant. But for confirmation let us look at the attitudes these same movements take towards freedom of action in the other great field of social activity, in economic affairs.

The non-political people show little interest in economic theories or systems of ownership. They tend to do what seems most advantageous at the moment for themselves or their personal circle and this means, in the first place, taking whatever you want, circumstances permitting. Usually, of course, circumstances don’t permit, but the constant need to be on guard against theft, everywhere from the council-flat to the stock exchange, indicates the widespread acceptance of this approach and familiar sayings provide confirmation: First come, first served; God helps those who help themselves; look after number one; let the buyer beware; fuck you Jack, I’m all right. Condemned by every movement, these phrases and the attitude they express belong to the non-political people.

Conservatism seeks to impose restraints on this rampant individualism, proclaiming the value of keeping to the rules. It takes an interest not only in the practice of commerce and industry but in seeing that they operate as they ought; a conservative Prime Minister distinguished between the acceptable and unacceptable faces of capitalism. But it hardly goes beyond that. Provided things get done decently and in order, and within the law, conservatism would leave people free to compete among themselves, with the most successful accumulating wealth and power and those displaying less financial ability, less energy or less avarice going to the wall. Nigel Lawson expressed the attitude when, as conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, he said: “The business of government is not the government of business.”

Liberalism does advocate government control of business, with restraints upon the concentration of economic power to ensure that winners do not squeeze out losers. Paradoxical though it sounds, in the name of economic freedom liberalism would subject industry and commerce to closer government control than conservatism favours. Mill held that society should interfere with one individual only to prevent harm to another, but he did hold that it ought to interfere for that purpose; for him the business of government did include, to that extent, the government of business.

Socialism believes in less economic freedom than liberalism, holding that with the ideas of liberalism fully carried out, industry and commerce would still operate to the disadvantage of most people. It advocates stricter controls, it would have at least the major industries functioning as public services for the benefit of the whole community. And once more communism goes farther; it would impose social control, using revolutionary force against recalcitrants.

Taking the movements in the same order as before each of them advocates less freedom for industry and commerce than its predecessor. If so, can we say that this series also leads towards anarchism? Anarchists claim to stand for freedom, do they not support freedom of action with material goods?

They don’t make much of a claim to this freedom themselves. Anarchists rarely try to pile up possessions, and they don’t think anybody else should do this, particularly if it means harming other people; an anarchist society would not permit either exploitation or the concentration of economic power. When it comes to material things, to food, clothing, housing, transport and the means of producing them, anarchism favours not freedom of action but rigorous control. The term “free access” may seem to suggest otherwise, but it can only mean access to such goods as the community has decided to produce, and in order for it to work there would have to be suppression of privileged access to the means and materials of production. An anarchist society would have to take whatever measures might be needed to ensure that nobody gets deprived or squeezed out, for nothing less than the assurance of this security will enable people to let down their defences and enjoy the free life of personal development and unrestricted self-expression. In the absence of coercive institutions the community itself would have to impose the needed control but, one way or another, imposed it would be. Without it, with anybody who valued economic power over others free to acquire and use it, the anarchist society could not survive.

Each movement in our series would impose closer economic control than the one before it, anarchism the closest control of all. In this, too, the movements form a series leading to anarchism.

Towards one end of the range freedom of economic action with tight control of political; conservatism accepts exploitation but fears sedition. At the other end, freedom of political action with tight control of economic; anarchism has no objection to sedition but is horrified by exploitation. The ideology at one end of the series is the converse of the one at the other, and the transition takes place in steps along the range.

Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.

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