Talk at Bristol Anarchist Bookfair

I am heading to Bristol later this month for the Anarchist Bookfair, where I will be hosting a workshop.

The title for the session, scheduled for 2pm to 3pm, is The Meaning of Freedom.

I will be asking what freedom really is. Is it simply not being behind bars, or is there more to it than that?

Can individual freedom exist without collective freedom? Or vice-versa? Where does our need for freedom come from?

This is a fundamental aspect of anarchist philosophy and yet one, I feel, that is rarely discussed in much depth.

The event is on Saturday 25th April 2015, from 11am to 6pm, at the Trinity Centre, Trinity Rd, Bristol BS2 0NW, with a Radical History Zone nearby at the Hydra Bookshop.

For more info go to


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.

Talk at London Anarchist Bookfair

I increasingly feel ill at ease in London, to be honest, but the one thing that keeps pulling me back there is the superb annual Anarchist Bookfair. I will be doing a talk – with discussion – at the event on Saturday October 18, from 5pm to 6pm in Room 321.

It’s going under the title “Born Free!” and will be based around my latest book. The Stifled Soul of Humankind. I will explore the deep need for freedom that lies at the heart of human nature, discussing its metaphysical significance and the way that it resurfaces throughout history, in forms appropriate to that particular time – for instance in the the Brethren of the Free Spirit, Anabaptists, Ranters, Romantic Revolutionaries and, of course, in anarchists…

Having just about managed to give a brief account of my ideas in French, at a meeting last weekend, it will be a relief to be able to let rip in my native language.

Entry to the bookfair is completely free (though you can make a donation to help cover costs) and it is always worth attending. It is at Queen Mary University of London in Mile End Road (Mile End tube) from 10am to 7pm on Saturday October 18 2014. See you there!

Don’t Kill Yourself!

A letter to an anarchist friend 

I was deeply shocked by what you told me last night in the café.

I know I didn’t say much at the time, almost brushed it aside with a few empathetic mumblings.

But this morning I’ve been struck by the immense sadness behind your words and feel the need for a somewhat delayed reaction.You said, as I am sure you recall, that the world we live in is so bad, so far beyond redemption, that you feel like killing yourself to escape from it.

I never would have imagined that you could feel like that – feel like I do, in fact, though I’ll come back to that later.

You are, after all, young (from my point of view at least), perfectly healthy (apart from a slight cold which I am sure was not a pertinent factor!), in a stable and loving relationship, financially secure thanks to a job you don’t seem to mind too much, actively involved in trying to make the world a better place…

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this is not enough. Why should it be? But you’ve always seemed to me like someone blessed with an inner force of positivity, propelling you forward with such momentum as to leave doubt and despair trailing helplessly along behind.

Maybe if your life had stopped in some way, then I would have accepted that all this debris had caught you up and entangled you in its confusion.

But then it’s not really about you at all, is it? Any more than my own unease and anxiety are about me and my little life.

You’ve had your eyes open long enough to see the whole picture, the picture that most people around us have to blank out of their consciousnesses in order to remain ‘sane’ – which means to carry on living out their phoney existences in a phoney manner without being troubled by the inconvenience of thought.

You’ve seen all that. You’ve seen the layers upon layers of lies that smother us and stop us from growing tall and strong inside as nature intended.

You’ve clambered up on the shoulders of the people you’ve met, the writers you’ve read, the dreams you’ve dreamt, and you’ve seen that beyond the wall that surrounds our everyday lives is another wall, and then another, in concentric circles marking out the limits of our identity, our freedom, our imagination, our potential.

We are all prisoners of a society, a civilization, so life-destroying, so corrupt, so ruthless, so brutal, so all encompassing, that all who see its hideous face revealed are in danger of being turned to stone – immobilised by the sickening dread of complete powerlessness.

How can we destroy this monstrous machine that is pulping into mincemeat so many tender, hopeful, human beings like you?

How can we even start the task of destroying it? Or think about starting to do so?

Whose life is long enough, whose energy and courage sufficient, whose patience and perseverence so divine that they could embark upon such a mission with any kind of confidence?

How can you free someone who doesn’t even know they are a slave?

How can you inspire people to win back something they don’t even realise they’ve lost?

How can you urge them on to fight an enemy that they can’t see, that they can’t distinguish from the wobbly stage scenery and cardboard props of what they have been taught to think of as reality?

After generation upon generation in cages, do birds lose the urge to fly? Or do they just accept that a feeble fluttering from perch to perch is the nearest they are ever going to get?

No, it’s not enough, this half-life we are condemned to lead, with chains and blinkers on our souls as we trudge on and on, turning the treadmill of profit for the greedy, loathsome few, sometimes holding hands or singing together to make us feel less worthless.

It’s not enough even to have tried to escape, to have smashed your head against the wall time and time again, the blood mixing with your tears as you scream that you WILL be free.

And it’s not enough to find some quiet corner of the global prison where you can pretend you are at liberty, to crouch in some sheltered spot, behind a bush maybe, and hum sweet songs to yourself with fingers firmly planted in both ears to stop the sound of humanity’s wailing from disturbing your reverie.

It’s not enough, I know, and I have also often thought that suicide was the only way out – a comforting emergency exit in case it all does finally become unbearable.

My own contemplation of self-murder does not shock or thrill me any more, though. It bores me. It’s been aired so often over the years, the decades in fact, that it’s become stale and indigestible. But when you come out with same idea, it makes we want to weep.

Don’t do it! Don’t kill yourself!

I don’t know how serious you were, but don’t even talk about it, let alone think about it!

I wouldn’t say this if you were already dead, if you had sunk into a way of being so superficial that there really was no point in you staying alive, if you were compromised, polluted or stymied to such an extent that the earthly form we know as ‘you’ had nothing left to offer.

I have nothing against suicide in some, nay many, circumstances.

But to kill ourselves because of our despair at finding ourselves born and trapped in this prison-world is to miss out on an amazing opportunity.

When I was much younger, I had a vision of myself on the top floor of a multi-storey car park in the suburban town where I grew up.

I could no longer bear living in the realm of the plastic undead and I stood on the edge of the wall, the sun in my hair and the breeze making me squint, ready to step into the void.

At the very moment that I stepped out, an old man appeared from nowhere and pulled me back. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but I suspect now that he was maybe the concept of my older self.

He told me that, instead of jumping from the car park, I should simply close my eyes and imagine I was doing so, imagine the fast falling, the impact, the end.

I should think about everything that was now gone. My memories, my connections, my fears, my hopes, my perceived obligations.

And then, he said in this vision of mine, I should open my eyes again and find, to my astonishment, that I was still alive, still there, still real.

But all the rest of me had really gone. All those things I should or would have done would now never be accomplished. All that life I should or would have led would now never unfold. Nothing was expected of me. Nothing was demanded of me. I simply was.

Think now, he said, how and who you want to be, all freed from the burdens you have been persuaded to take upon yourself.

Think now of what potential you possess as a raw human being with the power of moving, talking, interacting with the world around you.

You are an angel fallen from the sky, he said, still draped in the afterbirth of the celestial mother.

You have been sent here to do what you can, do what you must, to help bring about the great insurrection of the enslaved and dispossessed, to help crack open the crust of earthly power and deceit and unleash the tide of cleansing fire that swells beneath.

Imagine if all the would-be suicides in the world did the same – pulled back from the brink and became what they knew deep down they needed to be! What an army that would make, taking on the life-deniers with nothing left to lose!

He saw that I had understood and he said: “Just think – if you had really stepped over that edge, you would have died. Instead, you’ve been born.”

I’ve always remembered this whenever I contemplate suicide, even though it only ever took place in my imagination. I like to think I have lived by it to some extent – but, I’m afraid, not as deeply as I would have liked.

It wasn’t a one-off, though, and from time to time I leap again in my imagination, eyes tightly closed, and open them to find myself wrapped in a fresh skin, pulsating with new determination to leave my constructed self behind and throw my earthly presence, all clean and unencumbered, up against the scaly flesh of the Beast.

So don’t kill yourself – just offer yourself up, time and time again to be used as they see fit by the forces of good, of life, of resistance to evil.

We are all lonely sparks of light, separated from the Whole and homesick for reunion.

That day will come soon enough, but while we still have our own separate form, we have work to do, a destiny to fulfil.

Long may you continue to shine!