‘Meddle not with government…’

Many felt the likelihood of ending oppression and corruption in Europe was now so distant that they placed all their hopes in the new colonies of America, where their ‘freed Spirit’ would build a community bound by a common faith and individual conscience.

In 1634, Anne Hutchinson arrived in Boston from England. A woman of ‘ready wit and bold spirit and a popular speaker’, her many followers called themselves Antinomians — they were against the law. When one of them, Henry Vane, was elected Governor of Massachusetts, and another, Henry Wheelwright, preached a sermon inciting rebellion-against the state and the establishment of an anarchist society, the authorities were quick to act.

Vane was defeated at the next election and the Antinomians were found guilty of sedition and banished from the state. Anne Hutchinson led the group to Rhode Island where they founded their own colony.

Quaker immigrants made equally bad subjects since they were strongly opposed to bearing arms, taking oaths and even to voting. As William Penn, who gave his ñame to the state of Pennsylvania, advised:

‘Meddle not with government, never speak of it; let others say or do as they please; meddle not with business nor money; but understand how to avoid it, and defend yourselves upon occasion against it.’

The 18th century brought new waves of immigrants into North America. And with them came the new ideas of the Enlightenment concerning humanity’s natural goodness and the possibility of limitless social improvement. As these pioneers moved westwards, further and further away from the old order, they became increasingly ready to resist officials and compulsory taxes, and to rebel against the rulings of a government thousands of miles distant. Such people were unmoved by ideas of nation or territory and would band together simply for companionship and mutual aid. All these elements combined to form the ‘native’ anarchism that played such an important part in the birth of the American revolution of 1776.


‘A conspiracy against Government’

(Bernard Shaw on the American Constitution.)

The revolution’s leading intellect was Thomas Jefferson, the son of Blue Ridge Mountain pioneers and a firm believer that ‘that government is best which governs least.’

‘Were it left to me whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter. I am convinced that those who live without government enjoy infinitely greater happiness than those who live under the European governments. Under the
 pretext of governing, they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves
 and sheep.’

When Tom Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774, he was already famous for his opposition to slavery and his championing of women’s rights. He immediately sided with the rebels. As he wrote in his Common Sense:

‘Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness;
 the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. Society is in every state a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst an
 intolerable one. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.’

America taught Tom Paine that what holds people together is common interest, a force far greater than any government commands. As society progresses, so co-operation grows and the need for government decreases. On his return to England, Paine was an immense influence on William Godwin, whose Political Justice, published in 1793, laid the foundations of anarchist philosophy.


‘We know who our friends are…’

Godwin’s generation was also inspired by the French revolution of 1789, an event which, though not anarchist in its aims and methods, was dramatically influenced by the spirit of anarchism. In the spring of 1793, after four years of civil war, social upheaval and rocketing food prices, the Sans-culottes, the very poorest people of Paris, were finally driven to rise up and the Girondin government was toppled.

‘We are the poor Sans-culottes an association of artisans and peasants. We know who our friends are: those who have delivered us from the clergy, nobility, the feudal systems, tithes, the monarchy and all the ills which follow in its train, those whom the aristocrats have called the “anarchists”.’

Shoulder to shoulder with the Sans-culottes, and leading people in direct action to seize food from shops, were the Enrages. One of them, soon to die in prison, was the ex-priest Jacques Roux:

‘Freedom is but an empty phantom if one class can starve another with impunity. Freedom is but an empty phantom when the rich can exercise the right of life and death over their fellows.’

Another was Jean Varlet, one of Paris’s most popular street orators:

‘We cannot prevent ourselves being distrustful even of those who have won our votes. Kings’ palaces are not the only homes of despots.’

Varlet too was imprisoned, but he survived to write The Explosion, a vehement attack on the Jacobin government:

‘What a social monstrosity is this revolutionary government. For any rational being government and revolution are incompatible — unless the people is willing to set up its delegates in a permanent state of insurrection against themselves, which is absurd.’

Fighting alongside the Enrages and Sans-culottes, was the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. In fact, the riots of February and June which overthrew the Girondin government were primarily the work of women. It was they who daily experienced the effects of high prices and food shortages. The Society was founded in May by a young actress, Claire Lacombe:

‘Our rights are those of the people, and if we are oppressed we shall resist oppression.

Throughout that year the Society was at the heart of the ferment, linking the fight against rising prices with a struggle for economic and political liberty. Claire Lacombe was soon arrested, and the Society came-under government attack:

‘Since when have women been allowed to deny their sex and behave like men? Since when has it been decent to see women abandoning their domestic duties, and their children’s cradles, to go out into the public arena and make speeches … to perform the duties nature intended men to do?’

By the winter, the Society, along with the Enrages and Sans-culottes, had been effectively eliminated, though the tradition of mass popular action and democracy they initiated survived to influence all the revolutions of 19th-century Europe.


‘To free the human mind from slavery…’

William Godwin’s heart ‘beat high with great sentiments of Liberty’ at the news of the French Revolution, an event which inspired him to write the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Published in February 1793, it was the first book to state ‘in a quite definite form the political and economic principles of anarchism.’

Two months previously, Tom Paine had fled to France to escape a death sentence for publishing The Rights of Man. The government discussed prosecuting Godwin as well but dropped the idea in the belief that, at three guineas, it would be too expensive to reach a wide audience. They were mistaken. Hundreds of groups of workers around the country clubbed together to buy Political Justice and discuss its ideas. It also became for a time the creed of the Romantic poets. The book brought Godwin immediate fame:

‘He blazed as a sun in the firmament of reputation, no one ideas more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after, and wherever Liberty, Truth and justice was the theme, his name was not far off.

Godwin regarded society as a natural phenomenon originating in the natural world and capable of developing towards a better order: an egalitarian, decentralised society based upon the voluntary exchange of material wealth. This ideal world of individual justice and equality would be attained through education and propaganda rather than political activities since in his view political and even revolutionary changes can only be temporary unless founded upon a deeper change in moral attitudes.

He was convinced that government is both unnecessary and harmful to the conduct of human affairs, arguing that since government is the single most powerful influence upon human character and behaviour, it is government itself that must be held responsible for the majority of the world’s problems. If the principle of government and its effects were removed then the human mind would naturally develop to a greater state of reason, justice and truth:

‘With what delight must every well-informed friend of mankind look forward to the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of humankind, and which has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and not otherwise to be removed than by its utter annihilation!’

Government in practice works mainly for the rich, favouring individual power and enhancing ‘the imagined excellence of wealth. It encourages competition, envy and greed; supports economic inequality; creates social disruption, hunger and war, and is the principal enemy of the ‘most desirable object: the intellectual and moral happiness of the human species.’ Humanity, once freed from government, would be capable of indefinite improvement:

‘Perfectibility is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species, so that the political as well as the intellectual state of humanity may be presumed to be in a course of progressive improvement.’

Of course, human perfectibility has limits and restrictions. Old age, death, physical and moral weaknesses are examples, and these are inevitable. But others, the most important of which are government and authority, can and must be avoided. The opportunity to do this lies within the very nature of human society since it is within society that the greatest possible scope for freedom exists: freedom for experiment, discovery, invention, creativity and the exercise of free will. Authority, however, restricts all of these and diverts the intellect away from natural justice. Once freed from the chains of authority, the intellect would naturally move closer to a greater state of natural justice.

Justice is central to Godwin’s philosophy. The origins of society lie in the need for mutual aid between people, and it is moved by the principle of justice: A rule of conduct originating in the connection of one being with another,’ which demands that we do all we can for the welfare and assistance of others. I am bound,’ he writes, ‘to employ my talents, my understanding, my strength and my time for the production of the greatest quantity of general good.’

But the general good must never be put above that of the individual: ‘Society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals. Its claims and duties must be the aggregate of their claims and duties, the one no more arbitrary than the other.’ Society exists for the benefit of the individual, not the other way round. In fact, the greatest improvement of society will come from the improvement of the individuals within it; from that which ‘enlarges the understanding, supplies incitements to virtue, fills us with a generous conscience of our independence and carefully removes whatever can impede our exertions.’

Once it is accepted that the independence of the individual is supreme, it follows that all individuals are equally supreme — that no one is any more important than any other. In other words, all human beings are equal and as such have equal claims to justice.

Justice and equality cannot be served by government, then, which can only exist to promote inequality and injustice. Government, or any form of authority, has no claims or rights over the individual, nor should its laws be obeyed. Only the individual’s own understanding can reveal, and only the individual can decide, what is just and right conduct. If government were removed, and individuals were guided instead by their own reason, there would be a society of 'unrestrained concord'.

Godwin’s emphasis upon individual judgement does not exclude the possibility of common or collective decision-making. He points out that, at best, the two processes are very similar. When individuals meet together to discuss a problem the methods of debate and argument follow closely the way the individual mind arrives at its own conclusions. Both are ‘means of discovering right and wrong, and of preparing particular propositions with the standards of eternal truth.’ But even so, such common decisions can never become laws with power over the individual; for Godwin there is only one possible law, reason itself:

‘Its decrees are irrevocable and uniform. The functions of society extend, not to the making, but to the interpretation of law; it cannot decree it can only declare that which the nature of things has already decreed . . .'

If collective decisions go beyond reason, individuals must resist them. Godwin emphasises truthful persuasion and passive resistance to unjust decisions, with force and violence only to be used as a final desperate measure when all else fails. The best method, he says, is direct and individual contact, not political groups. Such groups, he explains, inevitably rely more upon weight of numbers than reason. At times it may be necessary to create temporary ‘associations’ in order to defend freedom, but:

‘Human beings should meet together not to enforce but to inquire. Truth disclaims the alliance of marshalled numbers.’

This emphasis upon small, temporary groups joining naturally in loóse association has been central to anarchist practice and theory ever since.

Godwin described an anarchist society as being decentralised and simplified. Localised administration will replace complex, centralised states and lead to a world-wide republic free from national borders. People will work collectively and take freely from common storehouses, deciding their needs for themselves without those ‘most pernicious of all practices’, money and exchange. With the abolition of accumulated property and economic inequality, which ‘Treads the powers of thought in the dust, extinguishes the sparks of genius and reduces the great mass of humankind to be immersed in sordid cares’, everyone would be ‘united to their neighbour in love and mutual kindness a thousand times more than now; but each one would think and judge for their self.’

Personal relations will be based on equality and friendship, not possessive constraint. Thus Godwin condemns marriage as ‘the worst of properties’ because it attempts (and usually fails) to make a past choice permanent. Similarly, children must become free from the domination of parents and teachers: ‘No human will be expected to learn anything but because they desire it’. Education will take place in small, independent schools or better still through individual instruction. To put the responsibility for education in the hands of government is for Godwin a terrible danger:

‘This is an alliance of a more formidable nature than the old alliance of church and state.Government will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hands and perpetuate its institutions’.

As the revolution in France descended into tyranny, and in England the reaction against radicalism grew, Godwin’s fortunes fell. He was viewed with the ‘same horror as of a ghoul, or a bloodless vampyre’. In 1797 his idyllic life with Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights
 of Woman,
ended abruptly in tragedy when she died giving birth to their daughter Mary.

Years of hardship, poverty and obscurity now followed.

In 1812, the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, eager to meet the author of Political justice, called at Godwin’s lonely house. Shelley had just been expelled from Oxford University for writing a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, which began with the words ‘There is no God …’ He was introduced to Mary and the two fell immediately and deeply in love, running away together two years later. Shelley was greatly influenced by Godwin’s philosophy, which he went on to introduce, via his poetry, to a new audience, becoming in the process the first and the greatest of all the anarchist poets.

In the spring of 1836, at the age of 80, Godwin died. He had spent the whole of his adult life, he said, trying ‘to do my part to free the human mind from slavery.’

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