We are living today in a corrupt and debased civilization. Shallow and amoral, its vision is built not on any sense of value but merely on a grasping love of money and power. Worse than that, this civilization tells us time and time again that there is no other possible way of living than its own, that we can never even dream of an alternative, let alone bring one about.
In the face of all this, something quite extraordinary is called for. What we need is a collective cry of courageous refusal; a ruthless and relentless rebuttal that slices through the centuries-old layers of lies; an ebullient and explosive ethos that blasts apart the ill-founded illusion of democracy and consensus; a fearless and flaming surge of authenticity that dares to expose the wretched relic of a humanity reduced to a state of near-fatal despair and disease by the forces of tyranny, violence, exploitation and greed.
Luckily, we already have such a set of ideas, such a movement, in the shape of anarchism. In the blood of each and every anarchist flows the need to question everything, to accept no limits to the freedom of the individual and – therefore, as a logical consequence – the community.
The anarchist does not merely stray outside the framework of acceptable thinking as carefully assembled by the current system – she smashes it to pieces and dances on the wreckage.
No assumption is left unchallenged, no state of affairs regarded as inevitable, no righteous struggle not considered worth waging, no future seen as unreachable. It is not for nothing that street posters in Paris during the uprisings of 1968 declared: “Be realistic – demand the impossible!”. This is the whole energy unleashed by the call-to-arms of anarchy: the perpetual power of possibilities denied but never dead.
The philosophical pillars of our prison-society have been rocked time and time again by the eloquence of these critics. Leo Tolstoy warned us that we are being ruled “by means of organized violence” and Alexander Berkman told us that whatever kind of authority we are up against, “it is always the same executioner wielding power over you through your fear of punishment in one form or another”.
There is no more powerful life experience for an anarchist than the realisation that all they have been brought up to believe is false, and Emile Henry – a brilliant young student in Paris in the final decade of the 19th century – was no exception.
He recalled: “I had been told that our social institutions were founded on justice and equality; I observed all around me nothing but lies and impostures… I brought with me into the struggle a profound hatred which every day was renewed by the spectacle of this society where everything is base, everything is equivocal, everything is ugly, where everything is an impediment to the outflow of human passions, to the generous impulses of the heart, to the free flight of thought”.
From its earliest beginnings, anarchism has rejected the idea that certain privileged people can “own” parts of the surface of the planet to the detriment of others, and has looked forward to a tomorrow where property and its associated evils have been abolished.
Following in the footsteps of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who famously defined property as theft, Gustav Landauer wrote at the start of the 20th century: “All ownership of things, all land-ownership is in reality ownership of men. Whoever withholds the earth from others, from the masses, forces these others to work for him. Private ownership is theft and slave-holding”.
There is no room here to detail all the areas of contemporary life in which anarchy contests the capitalist con-sensus. It rejects the idea that in order to be able to survive on this planet we must submit to “working” for someone else’s profit.
It stands resolutely opposed to the cynical conversion of natural solidarity into a fake sense of collective identity termed “patriotism” and the warmongering this is used to justify.
Glorying in the variety of human manifestation, it fiercely refuses to allow people to be pigeon-holed, classified, condemned, allocated or stigmatised on account of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical abilities or other individual difference, whether innate or chosen.
Most fundamentally, of course, anarchism is opposed to the existence of a state – the main heresy for which it is attacked by the Establishment. Once the fantasy has been dispelled that people need the state, rather than the other way round, the house of cards of authority and obedience will quickly tumble.
It will not be easy to rid the people of this notion, though, as Errico Malatesta explained when he imagined a man whose legs had been tied up from birth, but managed to hobble around anyway. He might believe, like the citizen does of a state, that it was necessary to be tied up: “Suppose a doctor brought forward a complete theory, with a thousand ably invented illustrations, to persuade the man with bound limbs that, if his limbs were freed, he could not walk, or even live. The man would defend his bands furiously and consider anyone his enemy who tried to tear them off”.
Always we see the anarchist mind leaping over the walls with which society would confine it, seeing afresh what others have always taken for granted, looking around itself in puzzlement at the holes humanity has dug for itself and fashioning, from its insights, rope ladders of thought with which we might save ourselves.
Take, for instance an article by George Woodcock on the way in which modern Western life is run according to the mechanical and mathematical symbols of clock time. He wrote: “In a sane and free society such an arbitrary domination of man by man-made machines is even more ridiculous than the domination of man by man. Complete liberty implies freedom from the tyranny of abstractions as well as from the rule of men”.
Freedom from the tyranny of abstractions – nowhere is the overarching ambition of anarchist thought more vividly expressed than here! Here is a political ideology that is ready to soar into the realm of philosophy without pausing for breath, calling for humanity to escape from the unimaginative, functional, narrowness of the capitalist mindset.
“Anarchy is life; the life that awaits us after we have freed ourselves from the yoke”
Bakunin condemned those who hide behind the mask of science to flatten out our lives and our dreams, calling for a “revolt of life” against this dogmatic tyranny. Landauer echoed his call by declaring that “anarchy is life; the life that awaits us after we have freed ourselves from the yoke,” and here we see the motivation and meaning behind all the rejection of contemporary society and its stifling norms.
For an anarchist, this is not how things are meant to be; this is not how we are all meant to live. Like Malatesta’s bound man, others hobble on towards their deaths believing that this is life as it has to be, accepting the slave-masters’ reassurances that there is no alternative on offer; that we should all be grateful to them for keeping us alive; that the whips, chains and CCTV cameras are all provided for our own safety; that there is no other road than this one, no finer task than breaking rocks, no possible place out there to which we could escape – that there is simply no such thing as freedom.
For an anarchist, the tender green shoot of each new-born child, the precious potential of each wonderfully unique and beautiful human being, is blocked, crushed, destroyed by the steel toe-capped boots of capitalism. Emma Goldman said that the health of society could be measured by a person’s “individuality and the extent to which it is free to have its being, to grow and expand unhindered by invasive and coercive authority”, and Landauer wrote that “anarchism’s lone objective is to end the fight of men against men and to unite humanity so that each individual can unfold his natural potential without obstruction”.
This, ultimately, is what anarchists mean by freedom. The freedom to be what we are meant to be, to become what we were born and destined by nature to become, if we had not been thwarted and distorted by this capitalist civilization. Left to our own devices, freed from the control of rulers and exploiters, we individuals would co-operate and combine in the way that we were intended to, in the same way as our fellow creatures, plants, insects, fungi and microbes. This is the basis of the classic anarchist argument for a stateless society founded on mutual aid and solidarity. As Bakunin said: “Nature, notwithstanding the inexhaustible wealth and variety of beings of which it is constituted, does not by any means present chaos, but instead a magnificently organized world wherein every part is logically correlated to all the other parts”.
Natural laws – these are the basis of the anarchist vision of a proper society and the reason why we reject the man-made variety as imposters and destroyers of all that is good and true and real. They are the interwoven and infinitely complex limbs of a living community, a vital entity that is the only form of “authority” that anarchists can respect, with the difference between a governmental society and an anarchic society being, as Woodcock said, “the difference between a structure and an organism”.
Rejecting the pitiful idea that we come into this world devoid of purpose and principle, helplessly amoral blank sheets of living paper on which the state, in its wisdom, must write down the rules by which it demands we should live, anarchists know that inherent laws have already laid down a sense of justice in our souls.
It is precisely because we already know true justice – in our blood, in our bones, in our guts, in our dreams – that anarchists are so revolted by the sick parody that is served up to us by the state.
Our innate sense of right and wrong is mortally offended and the pressure of a true justice repressed, of a natural inner authority denied, of inherent laws smothered, builds up in our spirits – individually and en masse, consciously and unconsciously – and becomes the force behind the need for revolution. This force becomes a living entity itself – not the passive, patient entity that would animate human societies in times when all was going as it should, but an active, dynamic entity that has formed itself with the one purpose of breaking through the obstruction to life that it finds blocking nature’s path.
For Landauer, this revolutionary entity becomes a source of cohesion, purpose and love – “a spiritual pool” – for a humanity stranded in a desolate and despotic age: “It is in revolution’s fire, in its enthusiasm, its brotherhood, its aggressiveness that the image and the feeling of positive unification awakens; a unification that comes through a connecting quality: love as force”.
This raw, spiritual, power of revolutionary enthusiasm can enable anarchy to turn its theoretical rejection of the chains of our fake society into a real one. That enthusiasm, that fire, that aggressiveness, can be shared by real people, in real towns and cities who take to real streets with real intent. What other hope for change is there than this joyous release of the mighty dammed-up waters of justice, of nature, of life?
Emile Henry, the young Parisian student dismayed by the sick society that he saw around him, was impelled by that same force of revolution to hurl himself at corrupt society and try to spark uprising through propaganda by deed. After killing several policemen with a bomb in the offices of a mining company renowned for strike-breaking, and then targeting the swanky upper class Café Terminus with another attentat, he was guillotined at the age of 22 in 1894.
At his trial he was unrepentant for the deaths he had caused, comparing them with the countless lives taken and destroyed by the callous state-capitalist system (which at the time had been brutally targeting anarchists) and was defiantly confident that the cause for which he was to die would one day triumph over its powerful foes.
Henry told his prosecutors: “You have hanged in Chicago, decapitated in Germany, garotted in Jerez, shot in Barcelona, guillotined in Montbrison and Paris, but what you will never destroy is anarchy. Its roots are too deep. It is born in the heart of a society that is rotting and falling apart… It is everywhere, which makes it impossible to contain. It will end by killing you”.
This text has been adapted and abbreviated from Chapter V of The Anarchist Revelation by Paul Cudenec, published by Winter Oak. See book for full references.