Our timeless thirst for freedom

The thing we call “anarchism” is really just a current form taken by something deep within human nature.

When we look back into history, we see the same root idea emerging in different circumstances and, therefore, in different guises.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, for instance, a loose movement spread across Europe known as the Brethren of the Free Spirit.

The starting point of their thinking may seem obscure and strangely religious from a contemporary anarchist point of view. But when leading figure Amaury de Bène declared at the University of Paris that “God is the intelligence that organises and the essence of that which is organised” he was proclaiming a revolutionary opposition to every kind of hierarchy.

Although he and his fellow thinkers were burnt at the stake in 1210, over the next couple of centuries their ideas spread all across the north of France, Belgium and Netherlands, Alsace, the Rhinelands, the south of Germany, Silesia and northern and central Italy.

Writing at the time, the religious reactionary Jan van Ruysbroeck complained: “Thirsting for freedom, they want to obey nobody, not the Pope nor the bishop, nor the priest, and, however they might appear externally, they know no internal submission to anything, neither in their will nor in their works, for they are fully cut loose from all that belongs to the domain of the Holy Church”.

The Apostolici who appeared in northern Italy at the end of the 13th century believed in communal life and the abolition of both private property and marriage. They recognised neither leaders, hierarchies, churches nor religious ceremonies and urged people to reject all kinds of authority.

Panic set in at the Vatican at the spread of their anarchic ideas and in 1312 the Pope condemned all Free Spirit followers to the clutches of the Inquisition.

Rather than let themselves be forced further underground, subsequent representatives of the libertarian spirit were increasingly defiant, transforming their theoretical rejection of authority into a revolutionary assault on power, property and privilege.

Their ideas inspired both an uprising in Florence in 1378 and the Peasants’ Revolt in the south of England in 1381, where a number of those involved had been linked with a previous outbreak of “heresy”, including John Ball, who had been arrested for illegal preaching 20 years earlier.

In 1418 a group of 50 people from Picardy in northern France, linked to the Free Spirit, turned up in Bohemia and joined forces with local rebels, known as Hussites after Jan Hus who had been burnt as a heretic in 1415.

At the same time as urban rebellion fomented in Prague, peasants around nearby Tabor came together to abolish private property and tax. They held all in common and called each other “brother”.

On 14 July 1420 a coalition of urban Hussites and rural Taborites routed the German troops who had been despatched to re-establish the control of the Emperor over Bohemia. Revolts continued to break out periodically and in 1437 there were peasant uprisings in both Hungary and Romania, with another in Zbaszyn, Silesia, in 1440.

Before the end of the century a much more sophisticated secret revolutionary league called the Bundschuh had been set up in the towns of Alsace, uniting peasants with the urban poor plus a handful of bourgeoisie and minor nobles.

Having gathered on a mountain in the Vosges and tried to start an uprising by taking Selestat, the survivors fled to Switzerland and southern Germany and re-established the organisation there.

At the start of the 16th century there were further insurrections in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, in which rebels demanded their “ancient rights” and “castles and monasteries were destroyed everywhere and noble prisoners judged and executed by peasant juries”.

We can go on from there to trace connections to later manifestations of the same root idea, in century after century. The Hussites were succeeded by the Anabaptists, for instance, who definitely influenced the Diggers and Ranters of the 17th century English Revolution. In turn, and together, they influenced the likes of William Blake and Percy Shelley and continue to inspire us today.

But although we can trace various links, it would be a mistake to see them as being purely causal.

These expressions of the anarchist idea are ultimately connected by the idea itself, rather by any knowledge of their predecessors and their exploits.

We are interested in reading about the Brethren of the Free Spirit because they share attitudes we already possess. For many of us, the realisation that we are anarchist comes in the form of a recognition – a recognition that here is the worldview that we have inwardly felt burning inside us all along, but which we have been unable to find in the superficialities of conventional “politics”.

That raw anarchic feeling will subsequently be refined and enhanced by discussion with others, by reading or by personal experience. But the original motivating spirit was already there under the surface.

The burning need for freedom, for justice, for joyful solidarity, is something innate to the human spirit and it is for this reason that it has emerged time and time throughout history, in slightly different forms.

And it will continue to emerge in the future, whatever the levels of repression deployed against us. It is born again with each new generation and will assume the forms most appropriate to the era as the means through which to resume its timeless struggle.

* There’s more about the Brethren of the Free Spirit and the European peasant uprisings in my latest book, The Stifled Soul of Humankind.

Poisoned by “Original Sin”

There could hardly be a more poisonous concept with which to pollute the human soul than that of Original Sin.

The story of the Garden of Eden was used by the Christian Church to create the doctrine that each and every one of is essentially bad.

According to this belief, it is only through the salvation offered by Christ, and thus by servile obedience to the powerful multinational organisation which represents His interests here on Earth, that we can hope to escape eternal damnation.

Today, with the influence of the Church generally on the wane, most of us no longer consider ourselves to be miserable sinners.

In many ways, though, the toxicity of Original Sin has lingered on in new contemporary forms.

The reactionary political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes has merged with right-wing neo-Darwinist ideas, with a bit of Freud thrown in, to produce a view of humanity every bit as bleak as that of the Church.

This was lent further currency by William Golding’s appalling Lord of the Flies, in which the (fictional) horrific cruelty of a bunch of unsupervised children is meant to reveal the horrific cruelty at the heart of uncontrolled human nature.

According to this outlook, we are all intrinsically bad. The answer to this, as Hobbes spelled out explicitly, is that our lives must be tightly controlled and governed by Authority. Otherwise, who knows what we would all descend into…

This is, of course, a fundamentally right-wing position to take. And yet to some extent it is also accepted by much of what is termed the “Left”, including anarchists, particularly in the view that education is necessary to teach us how to live with others in a respectful and sharing way.

Some of the confusion perhaps arises from the difference between children and adults, and the process of growing up.

Golding skilfully exploited this confusion to pernicious effect with his malignantly influential novel, playing on our memories of playground nastiness to paint the soul of humankind in the darkest of shades.

But children are not the finished product. Neither, for that matter, are 23 year olds, or 51 year olds. We go through stage after stage of psychological development throughout our lifetimes – or at least, we should do, if we are to fully become ourselves.

The potential to grow in this way, to become what we can be, is there inside us all along, though initially empty of actual content – as with Noam Chomsky’s idea of the innate ability to learn language.

The question of whether or not we are able to fulfil that potential, or what part of it we can fulfil, is determined by our environment. Likewise, the actual language or languages that we pick up, using our innate ability, depends on what languages we hear around us at a formative age.

Today we tend to think of the learning environment that is necessary for our mental stimulation and development in terms of “education”.

Over the last 150 years or so, anarchists have been at the forefront of radical changes in how we perceive that term and it has moved away from the rigid disciplines of learning-by-rote that were once imposed on youngsters.

But it is important to remember that the root meaning of the word “educate” is to “lead out”. It is not so much about pouring content into the mind (except in terms of specific facts), as in allowing or prompting innate abilities and possibilities to emerge from within. Our concept of education remains, therefore, a little narrow.

In his excellent book Nature and Madness, Paul Shepard explains how the development of an individual – their ontogeny – is meant to be closely linked to the natural world and the stages of life through which we have evolved to pass.

He argues that present in all of us is the “seed of normal ontogeny” which, if allowed to grow properly, would see us develop “in a genetic calendar by stages, with time-critical constraints and needs, so that instinct and experience act in concert”.

Compared to these age-old rites of passage, deeply intertwined with the cyclical rhythms of nature, the sort of “education” we experience today is sorely limited by the constant impact of the modern world around us.

A person growing up in our industrial civilization is like a plant trying to grow on a sparse and unhealthy patch of earth, in a polluted atmosphere, where the sunlight is permanently blocked by concrete walls.

Just because the plant does not grow to its full glory, does not mean that the potential to do so was not contained within it.
And neither does it mean that the species is doomed forever to produce wilted and miserable specimens.

Once the pollution has cleared, once the concrete has crumbled and gone, then the plant will be free to drink in the sunshine, to soak up life-giving nutrients from the earth, to grow to its full potential and to burst into flower.

This is what the anarchist belief in the innately positive nature of humankind is all about. It is not a “naïve” belief that there could ever be a human society where everyone was nice to each other all the time, where nobody ever lost their temper, hurt someone or broke their heart.

Instead, it is a deep-seated conviction that we are all essentially, potentially, good; that life itself – nature, the universe, being – is essentially good.

“Good” is not something separate from us, something distant and superior that we need to worship, that we need to beg to rescue us from the domain of the Lord of the Flies to which we are innately condemned. It is our essence, our core, our sense of value and self-empowerment.

In opposition to this innate “goodness” is the whole environment which blocks its development, the flowering of its potential. This environment is not just the physical one of industrial society, which stunts and poisons us, but the mental environment of the ideas that surround us.

If somebody thinks that we are all born innately bad and that only subservience to organised religion can save us from hell, they have fallen prey to the lie of Original Sin.

If somebody thinks that without a strong state to keep them in line, human beings will degenerate into warring chaos, they have been contaminated by the negative ideology of Hobbes.

If somebody thinks that true human nature is essentially dark and that allowing it to manifest itself is dangerous, then they are also a victim of that mindset. (Ironically, although for the Left this feared inner darkness often takes the political form of the threat of fascism, it is a concept very much embraced by fascists, for whom this demonic force can be harnessed by their cause in its bid to gain power and thereafter can ultimately only be controlled and absorbed by their war-fixated totalitarian state).

If somebody thinks that through education the good qualities of humanity are introduced intoour minds, rather than teased out of them, then they have also been affected by that way of thinking, although obviously in a more subtle fashion.

There is still a certain reluctance there to turn Original Sin completely on its head, to trust nature, to trust our own beating hearts and flowing blood, to accept William Blake’s assurances that “Innate Ideas are in Every Man, Born with him; they are truly Himself”.