George Walford: Reason for Revolution

The vast mass of non-political people set the limits within which society is able to operate, anything they refuse to accept being “politically impossible.” Effective prohibition of alcohol is one example of this, effective prohibition of abortion another. The people rarely try to argue a case for drinking or abortion, they just carry on with them whatever the authorities may say, and their sheer numbers mean that they cannot well be stopped. Conservatism is to a large extent able to use the same methods; conservatives do sometimes argue a case, but seldom very seriously, and rarely with any intention of allowing the outcome to affect their intentions. They do not need to rely on argument, because so many people support conservative views that provided they don’t go up against the non-political group, or manage to get many of the non-conservative political movements united against them, they can rely on imposing their preferences by sheer numbers.

Along the range of ideologies numbers drop off, and this encourages the increasing concern with theory and and argument; when you can’t overwhelm the opposition you have to try and reason with it. At the far extreme from the non-politicals, with anarchism, numbers are so small that the only course of action that might possibly be effective lies in rational persuasion.

This is largely recognised by the various anarchist groups. Some of them occasionally undertake a little violence (trivial beside the force routinely used by any established state), and more bluster about a need for “direct action” or “propaganda by deed” but, to an extent quite foreign to conservatives and non- politicals, anarchist activity consists of debate, discussion and argument. This is not to say, however, that all their reasoning is rational, all their arguments fully logical. IC has shown, repeatedly, the tangles theĀ (A-)SPGB gets itself into (if you need more evidence send a stamp for IC versus SP), and others around that end of the range sometimes take up positions which turn out on examination to be irrational. A favourite is the “purist” viewpoint. One participant in a recent discussion was refusing to admit that small wars are better than big ones, maintaining that all wars were bad – full stop, end of the matter, no degrees of badness admissible.

One trouble with wars is that in them people get killed, more dying in big ones than in small. If a big war is no worse than a small one, then many deaths are no worse than a few and, to bring it to a point, two killings are no worse than one. If so, then after one killing has been committed furtherĀ ones constitute no offence – since they do not make things any worse. This is absurd, and in fact the person in question did not attempt to maintain it. But he refused to accept the consequence, namely that if a big war is worse than a small then a small war is better than a big. Some wars are better than others, and if fewer people were killed in 1945-88 than in 1900-45 then, in respect of warfare, the later period was an improvement on the earlier. The man in the argument refused to agree with this; offering no reasons to support, his position, he stuck on “But I don’t accept that.” In doing so he abandoned rationality, and although the conservatives, and still more the non-politicals, secure in the power derived from their numbers, can afford to do this, anarchists (and to a lesser extent communists and socialistii) who follow suit are abandoning their only means of making progress.

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USING SLAVERY, starvation, syphilis, influenza and overwork, the European nations committed against the Amerindians an act of genocide worse, so far as numbers go, than the Nazi outrage against the Jews. (OBSERVER, 8 January 89).

from Ideological Commentary 38, March 1989.