If I have ever adhered to any kind of faith it’s been to a belief based on hope against rational expectation that the capacity for redemption and salvation is a product of human desire and will alone. And once that faith fuelled a conviction that the only political system within which we might grow towards our hitherto almost entirely unrealised potential was anarchism. Now the black-and-red flag is a poor, tattered thing and I oscillate between reluctant cynicism and sudden bursts of unwarranted optimism brought on when some event, local or beyond, seems to confirm the human spirit as more generous, self-sacrificial and loving than it is venal, selfish and full of hate.
There are very few certainties in my scheme of things. (In fact, to my perception there is very little scheme of things at all!) But one judgement that time has substantiated for me again and again is that wherever power is concentrated beyond the moderation of those over whom it is wielded there will be corruption and abuse. This is no dynamic insight; it is not the painfully wrought product of some intense internal Socratic debate. It’s a simple and constantly reiterated axiom acknowledged by all. But because I live in the ‘real world’ of legitimised greed, of souls mortgaged to consumerism, of programmed stimuli and conditioned responses, of institutionalised injustice, I no longer believe in some great political epiphany that will have us shrugging off our willing chains in favour of the anarchist dream. Like you, I compromise; as with you, my actions deny my principles daily; as with you, instinct and emotion govern reason and, all too frequently, moral lethargy dictates my actions and reactions.
But the radical voice is never silent – quiet to the point of near inaudibility at times, but never entirely silent. And it utters those immortal words whose synthesis of sly wit and raw truth has anarchism putting the Zen into politics: Be realistic and demand the impossible. Just about every social, political, cultural, spiritual, philosophical, biological, physical, chemical, medical, technological advance was impossible until necessity brought it into being. If there is any ‘WHY’ driving the great existential engine of ‘WHAT’ and ‘HOW’ then it’s all about a.) making the inconceivable conceivable, and b.) turning the mastered concept into action.
So deep down my faith in the very best we can be and the very best we can do never quite founders. Every time I am made aware of some infinitesimal act of self-sacrifice – the motorist in packed traffic who waves me into the space in front – or some mighty act of self-immolation – the firefighter who turns at the bottom of the stairs and climbs back into the burning tower against the deluge of fleeing humanity – I know that we have it within us to step beyond the self-crippling power systems whereby we surrender up personal responsibility to the exploiters. Reflect in this moment on how far we have stepped from slavery and serfdom to this place here and now. Why, at this point in the development of humankind, do we have to stand still?
A month or two back, I came across a little notebook that I’d begun to compile back in the mid-‘70s. It contained gleanings from a wide variety of sources and times, all of them concerned with political dissent, opposition, notions of freedom and self-government. What struck me forcibly as I skimmed through them again was how little both the nature of repression and the constant renewal of aspiration have changed. Here are some.
To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor wisdom, nor virtue… Government means to be subjected to tribute, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, pressured, mystified, robbed; all in the name of public utility and the general good. Then, at the first sign of resistance or word of complaint, one is repressed, tined, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garrotted, imprisoned, shot…sold, betrayed, and, to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged and dishonoured. That is government, that is its justice and its morality.
PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON (father of modern anarchism – 1840)
My good people, things cannot go well in England, nor ever shall, till everything be made common, and there are neither villains nor gentlemen, but we shall all be united together, and the lords shall be no greater masters than ourselves.
JOHN BALL, (renegade priest and ideologist of the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381)
Commons to close and keep,
Poor folk for bread to cry and weep,
Towns pulled down to pasture sheep;
This is the new guise.
Envy waxeth wondrous strong,
The Rich doeth the poor wrong,
God of his mercy suffereth long
The devil his work to do.
The towns go down, the land decays,
Of corn fields, plain lays,
Great men maketh nowadays
A sheepcote in the church.
ANONYMOUS POEM (early 16th century)
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall yourn houseless heads, and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness defend you
From such seasons as these? O I have ta’en
Too little care of this: take physic, Pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the Heavens more just.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (‘King Lear’, c. 1603/1606)
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.
WILLIAM PITT THE YOUNGER (1759 – 1806)
Listen, O Daughters, to my voice. Listen to the Words of Wisdom.
So shall you govern over all; let Moral Duty tune your tongue.
But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone…
Compel the poor to live upon a Crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With Labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our Earth will be overrun
Without these arts. If you would make the poor live with temper,
With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh. If pale, say he is ruddy.
Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d and drowns his wit
In strong drink, tho’ you know that bread and water are all
He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.
WILLIAM BLAKE (from ‘Vala or the Four Zoas’ – 1797).
Yes! To this thought I hold with firm persistence; the last result of wisdom stamps it true: he only earns his freedom and existence who daily conquers them anew.
JOHANN WOLGANG VON GOETHE (from ‘Faust’ – 1828/9)
All things are sold: the very light of heaven
Is venal; earth’s unsparing gifts of love,
The smallest and most despicable things
That lurk in the abysses of the deep,
All objects of our life, even the life itself,
And the poor pittance which the law allows
Of liberty, the fellowship of man,
Those duties which his heart of human love
Should urge him to perform instinctively,
Are bought and sold as in a public mart
Of undisguising selfishness, that sets
On each its price, the stamp-mark of her reign.
Even love is sold…
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (from ‘Queen Mab’ – 1813)
Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.
THOMAS PAINE (1707)
THE TOLDPUDDLE MARTYRS
God is our guide! from field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom;
We come, our country’s rights to save,
And speak a tyrant faction’s doom:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!
God is our guide! no swords we draw,
We kindle not war’s battle fires;
By reason, union, justice, law,
We claim the birth-right of our sires:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!!!
GEORGE LOVELESS (one of the group of Dorchester labourers, The Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were sentenced to seven years transportation for joining a union – 1834).
Freedom has a thousand charms to show
That slaves, howe’er contented, cannot know.
WILLIAM COWPER (from ‘Table Talk’ – 1856)
Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican liberty.
MOURN NOT THE DEAD
Mourn not the dead that in the cool earth lie –
Dust unto dust –
The calm, sweet earth that mothers all who die
As all men must;
Mourn not your captive comrades who must dwell –
Too strong to strive –
Within each steel-bond coffin of a cell,
But rather mourn the apathetic throng –
The cowed and the meek –
Who see the world’s great anguish and its wrong
And dare not speak!
RALPH CHAPLIN, Industrial Workers of the World activist
The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.
WILLIAM HAZLITT, English essayist
Is that we are not perfect
Is that the desire to lead
Will destroy ourselves and others.
Is that when we act alone
It is harder to harm.
Is that when we act collectively
We must not surrender our selves.
Is that land cannot be owned
Nor animals nor people.
Is that money is meaningless
When there is no property.
Is that we disavow marriage.
It is the union of Church and State.
Is that no human is sovereign
The one over the other.
Is that our children are
The common wealth.
Is that there is no god
Nor heaven nor hell.
Is that only we can be the creators
Of paradise on earth.
ANONYMOUS. (19th century Spanish anarchists called their beliefs The Idea).
THE INTERNATIONALE (first two verses)
Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise ye wretched of the earth,
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s in birth.
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us,
Arise, ye slaves! no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations,
We have been naught, we shall be all.
‘’Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place,
Unites the human race.
We want no condescending saviours,
To rule us from a judgement hall;
We workers ask not for their favours;
Let us consult for all.
To make the thief disgorge his booty
To free the spirit from its cell,
We must ourselves decide our duty,
We must decide and do it well.
EUGENE POTTIER (written in 1871, translated by CHARLES H. KERR)