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.

Closed to the bigger connection

I had occasion, the other day, to visit for the first time the small village in northern France that was supposedly the home of my long-distant paternal ancestors.

It was pouring with rain. I had intended to mark my “return” with a coffee in a local café, but there only seemed to be one such venue and it was shut. Very shut.

The boulangerie was also closed, as was the pizzeria-crêperie. The only shop that appeared to be open was the boucherie, which is of limited appeal to a vegetarian. The butcher suspiciously glared out at me as I peered inside. 

And that was that. No sudden thrill of centuries-old recognition, no instant bonding with the geographically-preserved spirit of my forefathers. 

Of course. Did I really expect there to be? Didn’t I already know that the power of place to which we can often connect has nothing to do with our individuality or our genetic inheritance?

When I look back at the places that have made a real impression on me – that have reached out and seized me on the inside – I can see no personal, familial or tribal connection at all.

In all of them I felt a kind of forcefield, an energised memory still radiating patterns from what we call the past, making a mockery of our obsession with time by cutting straight through the centuries and plugging us directly into what is merely another aspect, not always accessible, of the same reality.

And this connection is available for all of us to experience.

A great tragedy of certain strands of the völkisch movement at the end of the 19th century, whether in pan-Germanic, pan-Slavic or Zionist form, was the espousal of specific sources of collective inspiration, related to the heredity of those concerned.

This kind of thinking is not a connection, but a cutting-off. Every German who revelled in the heritage of the “Indo-Aryan” peoples was spurning the opportunity to draw deeper from the well of human experience, denying him or herself any soul-connection with the peoples behind the wisdom of Taoism, native American spirituality, Sufism or the Kabbalah.

Why do this? Defining oneself in terms of one particular “race” or “nation” (in spite of the patent absurdity of these rigid classifications) is an extension of egotism.

It is a means of establishing one’s own identity by contrast with an “other”, which one is not. The corollary of a sense of pride in this identity is, of course, a projection of all the bad qualities one does not like about oneself on to those who do not share this specific identity.

European colonialists elevated their own sense of self-worth by abasing, in their minds, the value of indigenous peoples and their cultures. Nazis did the same to Jews and right-wing Zionists do the same today to Palestinians. And so on.

I would conclude by saying that the only connection worth having is to the whole of humankind, but this does not go far enough. A love of humanity that is matched by a callous indifference to the sentient creatures with whom we share this planet is a blinkered and lop-sided affair.

If you believe, as I do, that the whole of Earth, indeed the universe, is sentient on a macrocosmic level, then the picture becomes clearer.

It is the Whole to which we must connect, and we should not limit ourselves to narrow concepts of how and where we might find that connection, which may lie hidden in the shadows of a mountain forest or glitter in the eyes of a passing stranger in a city street.

If we are to find those points, those moments, then we need to keep our minds and hearts constantly open and ready to embrace them.

One thing for sure, as I found out, is that they won’t be neatly marked out for us on a Michelin map or solemnly inscribed in your family tree.

* I am back from France in time to give my talk at the Anarchist Bookfair in London on Saturday October 19 at 5pm. See you there!