Anarchism and Pacifism

In my last post [on the guillotine], I mentioned two anarchists, Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry who had been executed for bombings in Paris.  This was a time when “propaganda by the deed” was coming to the fore and violent acts to attack the state and the establishment were prominent in revolutionary thinking.  Before explaining more about this thinking, I thought I had better start with some of the basic philosophies and also the role of pacifism in anarchist thought.

The original definition of the word anarchy is the state of being without a leader or ruler.  Such a condition is often represented as being undesirable, as a society without formal government is perceived to be without order or chaotic.  Anarchists take a different view and say that society without a leader or government is a positive state because all people would then be equal and no one would wield power in order to control others.

People would have absolute freedom and would be in full control of the decisions that affect their own lives.  Society would become self regulating rather than unruly and violent, with all members of the society collectively engaging with the decision making process.  Anarchists are therefore opposed to authority in any form and authority is commonly seen to take the shape of government, the judiciary, the workplace as well as established institutions such as the church or schools.

Anarchists extend the principle of denial of authority to its logical conclusion and advocate the abolition of the state.  Many anarchists also demand the abolition of capitalism too, since capitalism is the wielding of power through economic means, resulting in the exploitation of those who depend on the capitalist structures for work and livelihoods.

Once existing societal structures have been destroyed the anarchists would seek to create a society based on social freedom and free and voluntary association – the right to build relationships with anyone.  For some anarchists, an anarchist future includes the abolishment of private property too.  People could choose to live either as individualists, seeking to deal with others whenever they pleased or, as suggested by collectivists, live in communes with common ownership of resources building relations and federations with other communes whenever necessary and appropriate.

It is relatively easy to criticise existing society’s structures and systems and also to define what the idealised society would look like; the problems lie in how the transition is achieved.  I will do my best to discuss the two basic strategies that have been considered and, in some instances, attempted in order to replace the existing system with an anarchist system; overthrowing the state by peaceful means or through violence.  The violence will come later.

For many, the stereotyped image of the anarchist has been a bearded man, wearing a cape and carrying a round bomb with a lit fuse.

This image was developed during the late 1800s and was created through a combination of terrorist attacks and assassinations, which were not necessarily the work of anarchists, as well as police and media hyperbole over the nature and extent of the threat.

You can compare the current media and government reactions to modern-day freedom fighters, revolutionaries, or terrorists [take your pick, according to your position].

This violent approach to bringing about the revolution was a relatively new innovation for the anarchist movement, which, although politically radical, had until then mainly been a discursive and philosophical group.

One of the earliest writers to be associated with anarchist philosophy was William Godwin.  Although Godwin made no claims to be an anarchist, and may not have recognised the term as something to be associated with, he was by his philosophical outlook very much of the anarchist ilk.

William Godwin

After having seen the results of the French Revolution, he realised that government would only function well when structured simply.  He then took this to its logical conclusion and decided that humanity could only be truly free and enlightened were government to be removed altogether:

With what delight must every well informed friend of mankind look forward to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind, and which, as has abundantly appeared in the progress of the present work, has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and no otherwise removable than by its utter annihilation! 

Godwin did not believe that all coercion and violence was immoral per se, but he did believe that the removal of government would naturally occur as government would eventually become unnecessary.  He felt that such a “revolution” would come about gradually through education and discussion and the recognition that all people are born equal and should only be judged on their abilities.

Godwin had been brought up in a fiercely religious family of Dissenters and, although he became an atheist, his beliefs were moulded by his involvement in the Church.

Dissenters is an umbrella term for a number of Christian groups who believed that the state should have no influence over religious matters.  They were disappointed by the outcome of the Reformation and by what was considered to be the monarchy’s political influence over the Church of England.  The Dissenters frequently created their own egalitarian, self supporting communities in which an idea of an organised church was frowned upon.  Examples of Dissenter groups are the Lollards, Baptists and Diggers.

The teachings of the Christian Church have inspired some anarchist thinkers and activists, most notably Leo Tolstoy, to further develop the pacifist elements of the anarchist tradition.  Christian anarchist philosophies state that the only source of authority to which Christians need answer to is the word of God and therefore the existence socially defined structures such as government or ecclesiastical authorities such as the Catholic Church or the Church of England were logically flawed.  Christian anarchists are absolute pacifists and oppose the use of force as either an offensive or defensive tool.

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910), a man perhaps more famous for the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, developed a strong moral and Christian system of beliefs that have since been labelled as anarchist in nature, even though he, like Godwin before him, did not use the label himself, feeling that the term was too closely connected with concepts of violent action.

Leo Tolstoy

Having served in the Russian army at Sevastopol, he witnessed the horrors of war and went on to encourage young Russian men to refuse to serve when conscripted.  This is an early example of what was to develop into Tolstoy’s principle of civil disobedience.  Tolstoy’s pacifism, inspired by his wartime experiences, was unable to support any violent revolution and could not justify the shedding of blood for any reason whatsoever.  After travelling to Paris, he witnessed the execution of a murderer which demonstrated to him the inherent violence of the state and which prompted him to write to a friend that

 …as from today I will certainly never go and see such a thing again and I will never serve any government anywhere

Tolstoy went on to develop an interpretation of the bible which was based on his reading of the gospels.  Tolstoy summarised his reading in five commandments:

  1. Do not be angry, but live at peace with all men
  2. Do not indulge yourself in sexual gratification
  3. Do not promise anything on oath to anyone
  4. Do not resist evil, do not judge and do not go to law
  5. Make no distinction of nationality, but love foreigners as your own people

From the above commandments, rules one, four and five are most pertinent to this post.  Rule one asks everyone to live in peace and to avoid conflict.  Rule four demonstrates Tolstoy’s belief in non-resistance, even avoiding the use of violence for self-defence and also shows that he considers the state’s employment of violence to control its populace to be inhumane and that people should not submit themselves to any authority by “going to law”.  He believed that God’s law was the only authority to be obeyed.  It should be noted that Tolstoy’s rule of “do not resist evil” is only to be applied to violent resistance; he felt that evil should be resisted by way of persuasion and argument.  The fifth rule is based on Tolstoy’s belief that nationalism and patriotism were immoral.  Patriotism was a tool of slavery, used by governments and those in power to achieve their goals and that those enslaved were able to abdicate personal responsibility.  Nationalism was seen by Tolstoy as a negative concept since it allowed people to perceive themselves as better than others based on the concept of nationality and to forget that everyone was equal.  Tolstoy argued that people in conquered nations should not rise up in nationalist violence but should, as should anyone else opposed to an authority, refuse to take part in any of the government’s violent plans, as part of a campaign of non-violent resistance.  Tolstoy also advocated non-payment of taxes as a method of undermining the state, as taxes were often used to support violence, either militarily or legislatively.

Tolstoy’s ideas of non-violent resistance were hugely influential for Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian spiritual and political leader.  Gandhi was a self declared anarchist, but as can be seen from the quote below, he did not consider himself to be part of the anarchist faction supporting a violent reaction to the imperial authorities.

We may foam, we may fret, we may resent but let us not forget that India of today in her impatience has produced an army of anarchists.  I myself am an anarchist, but of another type.  But there is a class of anarchists amongst us, and if I was able to reach this class, I would say to them that their anarchism has no room in India if India is to conquer the conqueror.  It is a sign of fear.  

Mahatma Gandhi

Like Tolstoy, Gandhi was opposed to all terrorism and violence although he did encourage Indians to fight alongside the British, arguing that if Indians wanted equality and freedom within the Empire, it would be wrong not to defend it.  Gandhi’s principles were inspired not just by Tolstoy’s work but by the Hindu tenet of ahimsa, or peace or reverence towards all human things which therefore implies non-violence and respect for all life.  Such beliefs, although not necessarily derived from a religion, are common to many anarchists and hence some anarchists are either vegetarians or vegans as they believe it is wrong to control or wield power over any sentient being, not just humans.  Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” and in India this method of undermining the state brought about independence from the UK.  Gandhi developed a set of rules which described how the resister will harbour no anger and will never retaliate, irrespective of what the authorities may do.  Such examples of civil disobedience can be seen in the actions of tax resisters, in the US civil rights movement and more recently in anti-war campaigns when protests in the form of petitions, sit-ins and hunger strikes are used.  It should be emphasised that not all anarchists that subscribe to non-violent approaches do so for religious reasons like Tolstoy or Gandhi.  Ethical philosophies such as humanism also demand respect for human life and freedom for all.

The idea of the General Strike has long been popular with the anarcho-syndicalists.  The anarcho-syndicalists focus on the potential of the labour force as a mechanism by which revolutionary change can be achieved.  The society resulting from such a revolution would be self-managed democratically by the workers.  Domela Nieuwenhuis, the Dutch social anarchist and pacifist, recognised the promise of the workforce in controlling society, campaigned for a general strike in the event of war.

The non-violent approach is attacked for the speed, or lack of, with which its effects are felt.  I would suggest that non-violence is a philosophical approach which will allow more people to participate as it is clear that the majority of people would rather take part in or support peaceful rather than violent protests.  I would also suggest that non-violent approaches attempt to lead to a cultural change in society rather than a violent revolution which is unlikely to be supported by the majority.  The German anarchist Gustav Landauer believed that

The state is not something that can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition; a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently

Landauer therefore believes that the concepts of state and government can be undermined by being avoided.  If the societal structures and behavioural processes supported by the state are avoided and ignored by the people then the state will become irrelevant and wither away as suggested by William Godwin.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, perhaps the earliest self-declared anarchist, also believed that the revolution should be brought about by social change designed and implemented by the proletariat.  He suggested that new institutions should be constructed on libertarian terms that would replace the existing institutions.

He attempted the creation of a People’s Bank which was designed to allow the exchange of commodities which were valued on the basis of the expense of production and the labour applied to that production.  The People’s Bank also endeavoured to provide interest free loans.  Such institutions would obviously undermine the structures supported by the state by removing the profit motive from trade and therefore any associated exploitation.

Such non-violent approaches are open for criticism.  Writers and activists such as Leon Trotsky, Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X have criticised non-violence as a means by which the morals of the bourgeoisie, nowadays sometimes characterised as “bleeding heart liberals”, are forced upon the proletariat and that the revolution cannot happen without violence.  The idea that people had to eschew self defence is also strongly criticised.

George Jackson, a leader of the Black Panther movement said of Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach

The concept of non-violence is a false ideal.  It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary.  When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative. 

It has also been suggested that non-violent approaches have tended to be successful where the protests have been aimed at a comparatively liberal state.  In the case of the Indian independence movement against the British and the US civil rights movement both governments were relatively liberal.  This can be contrasted with the non-violent protests in Tiananmen Square which forcefully and violently crushed by the Chinese government.

Anarchist thinking commonly perceives war as an activity of the state which seeks to gain and consolidate territory and wealth and therefore power as well as a mechanism for spreading ideologies.  Following the First World War, Randolph Bourne wrote that

The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice.  International politics is a “power politics” because it is a relation of States and that is what States infallibly and calamitously are, huge aggregations of human and industrial force that may be hurled against each other in war.  When a country acts as a whole in relation to another country, or in imposing laws on its own inhabitants, or in coercing or punishing individuals or minorities, it is acting as a State. 

Bourne emphasises the state’s use of law and the military as a force and as a means of potential or actual violent control.  He also notes how the people are controlled and used commodities in war.  He points out in the same work that governments in such cases tend to act without the mandate of the people and goes on to suggest that wars will tend to unify the people as a whole and also allow the government to control any dissenting minorities via emergency legislation and curtail freedom and human rights.

By supporting wars, anarchists believe that they would be supporting the regime’s quest for maintained or additional power.  An opposition to power and authority is a central anarchist tenet and war must therefore be resisted.  Peter Kropotkin, a key anarchist thinker and geographer, became alienated from the general anarchist movement when he called for military conscription to prepare for war against Germany in 1905 and when he supported the Allied campaigns in the First World War.  Such calls were regarded as contrary to all of Kropotkin’s prior thinking by Trotsky and Errico Malatesta, the Italian anarchist, labelled Kropotkin a “pro-government anarchist”.

Violence is therefore seen as a mechanism by which power is used to exert will, commonly the will of the state or the capitalist, over others.  In societies with a government, the state holds the monopoly on wielding power through violence and punishment.  The monopoly is used through the police, the judiciary and the military.  From this it is fair to deduct that anarchists, by being opposed to any form of authority, power or control by one person over another, must be opposed to violence.  The only debate so far appears to be whether violence is considered permissible in self-defence or whether violence is simply not considered an option and must be avoided.


2 thoughts on “Anarchism and Pacifism

  1. […] Emile Henry.  Then I tried, maybe ambitiously, to describe the early thinking behind some of the pacifist ideas in anarchist thinking.  In another vain attempt, I’m going to write about some of the thinking behind the approach […]

  2. nonviolentconflict says:

    Reblogged this on NonviolentConflict.

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