George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, 1962, Postscript 1975.
2 The Family Tree
Anarchism is a creed inspired and ridden by paradox, and thus, while its advocates theoretically reject tradition, they are nevertheless very much concerned with the ancestry of their doctrine. This concern springs from the belief that anarchism is a manifestation of natural human urges, and that it is the tendency to create authoritarian institutions which is the transient aberration. If one accepts this view, then anarchism cannot merely be a phenomenon of the present; the aspect of it we perceive in history is merely one metamorphosis of an element constant in society. It is to tracing this constant but elusive element that anarchist historians, such as Peter Kropotkin, Max Nettlau, and Rudolf Rocker, have largely devoted themselves.
The family tree which these writers have cultivated so carefully is indeed a magnificent growth, and in the shade of its branches one encounters some astonishing forefathers. Kropotkin was perhaps the most extreme of all the anarchist genealogists, for he sought the real origin of his creed not among individual thinkers, but among the anonymous mass of the folk. 'Anarchism,' he declared, 'originated among the people, and it will preserve its vitality and creative force so long only as it remains a movement of the people.'
In Modern Science and Anarchism this belief is elaborated in historical terms. 'From all times,' Kropotkin claims in this book, 'two currents of thought and action have been in conflict in the midst of human societies.' These are, on the one hand, the 'mutual aid' tendency, exemplified in tribal custom, village communities, medieval guilds, and, in fact, all institutions 'developed and worked out, not by legislation, but by the creative spirit of the masses', and, on the other hand, the authoritarian current, beginning with the 'magi, shamans, wizards, rain-makers, oracles, and priests' and continuing to include the recorders of laws and the 'chiefs of military bands'. 'It is evident,' Kropotkin concluded dogmatically, 'that anarchy
represents the first of these two currents. ... We can therefore say that from all times there have been anarchists and statists.' Elsewhere Kropotkin conjectures that the roots of anarchism, must be found in 'the remotest Stone-age antiquity', and from this highly personal view of prehistory he goes on through all the gamut of rebellious movements to the early English trade unions, reaching the eventual conclusion that 'these are the main popular anarchist currents which we know of in history'.
Parallel with Kropotkin's search for an unnamed and inarticulate anarchism of the people runs the search of other historians of the movement for anarchist elements in the thoughts of philosophers and writers in the past. Lao-Tse, Aristippus and Zeno, Etienne de la Boetie, Fenelon and Diderot are recruited in this way, and the delightful chivalric Utopia of the Abbey of Theleme admits Rabelais on the strength of its libertarian motto, 'Do what you will!' Religious movements like the Anabaptists, the Hussites, the Doukhobors, and the Essenes are claimed en masse, and the French Tolstoyan Lechartier has by no means been alone in declaring that 'the true founder of anarchy was Jesus Christ and ... the first anarchist society was that of the apostles'. Two recent historians of anarchism, Alain Sergent and Claude Harmel, have discovered the first anarchist in Jean Meslier, the eighteenth-century cure of Etrepigny, whose resentment against the ecclesiastical and civil authorities of his time festered into a great Testament which he left to his rural parishioners (it was intercepted after his death by the Church authorities and never reached the farmers for whom it was meant) and in which he denounced authority of every kind and advocated a bucolic society based on friendship among peasant communities. And the American professor James A. Preu has just proved to his own satisfaction that the gist of Godwin's Political Justice -- and by implication of all anarchist thought -- is to be found in Book IV of Gulliver's Travels; he is not the first writer to have recognized in the Tory Dean an anarchist forefather in disguise.
But the roots of this spreading genealogical tree are far too weak for the crown of branches they are expected to bear. Even a cursory study of the writers claimed shows that what has so often been represented as the prehistory of anarchism is
rather a mythology created to give authority to a movement and its theories in much the same way as a primitive clan or tribe creates its totemic myths to give authority to tradition or taboo. It is supported by the failure to realize that, though rebellion and the desire for freedom are both ancient elements in human society, they change their forms in accordance with changing historical situations. If, for example, we consider such great typical rebels of classical antiquity as Brutus and Spartacus, we realize that each of these men strove sincerely for his own idea of liberty, yet neither Brutus, fighting for the interests of a patrician oligarchy against the threat of dictatorship, nor Spartacus, seeking to liberate the slaves so that they could take up again their broken lives in their own countries, would have shared or understood the particular conceptions of economic equality and classless liberty which the nineteenth-century anarchists developed in reaction against an increasingly centralized and mechanized capitalist state.
In general, the anarchist historians have confused certain attitudes which lie at the core of anarchism -- faith in the essential decency of man, a desire for individual freedom, an intolerance of domination -- with anarchism as a movement and a creed appearing at a certain time in history and having specific theories, aims, and methods. The core attitudes can certainly be found echoing back through history at least to the ancient Greeks. But anarchism as a developed, articulate, and clearly identifiable trend appears only in the modern era of conscious social and political revolutions.
Its peculiar combination of moral visions with a radical criticism of society only begins to emerge in a perceptible form after the collapse of the medieval order. This collapse was to lead on one side to the rise of nationalism and of the modern centralized state, but on the other to the emergence of a revolutionary trend which early began to develop the authoritarian and libertarian currents that matured during the nineteenth century in the conflict between Marxism and anarchism.
Just as the great dissolution of medieval society took on ecclesiastical, social, and political forms, which are very difficult to disentangle, so the movements of revolt retained until the end of the seventeenth century a similar triple aspect. The
extreme criticisms of society during this period were voiced not by humanists, but by fundamentalist religious dissenters, who attacked both the Church and the current systems of authority and property-owning on the basis of a literal interpretation of the Bible. Implied in their demands was the longing for a return to the natural justice of the Garden of Eden. Whether or not the hedge priest John Ball actually recited it, the famous couplet --
When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
-- is symptomatic of an urge toward a lost simplicity that still, almost three hundred years later, echoed in the pamphlets of the Commonwealth period.
The demands of the peasants who revolted in England in the fourteenth century and in Germany during the early sixteenth century were not in themselves revolutionary. The malcontents wished for an end to impositions by the clergy and the lords; they wished most of all for the final destruction of the moribund institution of serfdom. But few of them went beyond such simple reformist demands, and a naive faith in certain aspects of feudalism was shown by the trust the English peasants placed in the promises of King Richard II even after the slaying of their leader Wat Tyler. One can compare their attitude with that of the illiterate Russians who marched behind Father Gapon to the Winter Palace in 1905, in the tragically foolish hope that they would encounter, not the bullets that wer actually awaiting them, but the understanding compassion of the Tsar, that symbolic Father in their still semi-feudal world.
Yet among the leaders of the English and the German peasants there did appear the first signs of the kind of social criticism that was to end in anarchism. The fragment of John Ball's speech which Froissart has preserved -- almost all we know of the opinions of that tempestuous man whose presence only half emerges from the medieval shadows -- attacks both property and authority and implies a link between them that anticipates the arguments developed by the nineteenth-century anarchists.
Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs nor gentlemen, and we shall be equal. For what reason have they, whom we call lords, got the best of us? How did they deserve it? Why do they keep us in bondage? If we all descended from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, how can they assert or prove that they are more masters than ourselves? Except perhaps that they make us work and produce for them to spend!
The tone of this speech seems authentic, even if the chronicler sharpened the details; it has that peculiar mixture of religious exaltation and social denunciation with which we become familiar as the Reformation develops into its more radical forms. But, though Ball denounces private property and demands equality, he does not appear to make a specific rejection of government as such. And for a long time we see demands for egalitarian communism emerging within what remains an authoritarian framework. The first literary presentation of an ideal egalitarian society, Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), is governed by a complicatedly elected authority and imposes extraordinarily stringent rules on individual behaviour. And, though efforts have been made to discover anarchistic elements in the German peasant revolt, led by Thomas Münzer, and in the Anabaptist commune of Minister, the practice of these movements seems in each case to negate the anti-authoritarian attitudes suggested in the statements of some of their leaders. Münzer, for instance, denounced authority, but made no concrete suggestions for a form of society that might do without it, and when he attempted to set up his ideal commonweatlh at Mulhausen, nothing resembling an anarchistic society in fact emerged. Engels has summed up the situation very clearly in The Peasant War in Germany:
Communism of all possessions, universal and equal labour duty, and the abolition of all authority were proclaimed. In reality Miihl-hausen remained a republican imperial city with a somewhat democratic constitution, with a senate elected by universal suffrage and under the control of a forum, and with the hastily improvised feeding of the poor. The social change, which so horrified the Protestant middle-class contemporaries, in reality never went beyond a feeble and unconscious attempt prematurely to establish the bourgeois society of a later period.
As for the Anabaptists, their denunciations of earthly authority were negated by their theocratic inclinations, and there was little evidence of a genuine libertarian trend in the attempt to impose communism forcibly in Minister, or in the expulsion from the city of those who refused to become Anabaptists, or in the puritanical iconoclasm which led to the destruction of manuscripts and musical instruments. A small group of Anabaptist saints appears to have exercised a rather ruthless authority during most of the stormy history of the Miinster commune, and in the end Jan of Leyden became not only the spiritual leader but also the temporal ruler of the city, claiming to be King of the Earth, destined to usher in the Fifth Monarchy which would prepare the Second Coming of Christ.
What seems to have been lacking in these movements, from an anarchist point of view, was the element of individualism that would have balanced their egalitarianism. The shaking free from the medieval tendency to see man as a member of a community ordained by God was a slow process, and perhaps slowest of all among the landworker and artisan classes -- used to a communitarian pattern of guild and village life -- on whom the peasant revolts and the Anabaptist movement were mostly 1 based. Here the anarchist historiographers fall into the error! of assuming that the primitive or medieval folk community,! based on mutual aid and roughly egalitarian by nature, is also! individualistic; most frequently, of course, it is the reverse,! inclined toward a traditional pattern in which conformity is! expected and the exceptional resented.
The individualist trend in post-medieval Europe emerges first among the cultured classes of the Italian cities during the Quattrocento; it appears as a cult of personality which has nothing to do with ideas of social reform, and it leads as often to the pride of the despot as to the desire for many-sided fulfilment of the humanist scholar. But it creates a new interest in man as an individual rather than as a mere member of the social order; from the time of Dante it permeates the literature of southern Europe, and from Chaucer that of England, until it leads to such individualist literary forms as the Elizabethan drama, the biography and autobiography, and, eventually, the novel, all based on a steadily deepening interest in the
emotional and psychological nature of man defined against, rather than in, his social background.
Parallel to this secular exaltation of the individual, the later stages of the Reformation culminate in a religious radicalism which goes beyond such chiliastic sects as the Anabaptists and which, particularly among the Quakers, develops a personalistic view of religion, rejecting organized forms, and basing itself on the idea of the 'inner light', or, as George Fox called it, 'that of God in every man', an idea resembling Tolstoy's and not very far from some anarchist conceptions of immanent justice.
These secular and religious tendencies all helped to propel the seventeenth century toward a deepening consciousness of the value of individual liberty. And it was during the English Civil War that this trend produced the earliest recognizably anarchistic movement.
The men who fought the Civil War were -- on both sides --more thoroughly the heirs of Renaissance individualism than is commonly recognized; there is perhaps no more magnificent example of the Baroque cult of personality than Milton's Satan. In another direction the rise of the Independents in opposition to the Calvinists shows the increasing swing toward an emphasis on the personal conscience as director of religious and moral choice, and here again, in Areopagitica, Milton drew a conclusion that is more libertarian than liberal. Economic and social changes, the rise of early capitalism and the consolidation of the. squirearchy, all pointed in the same direction, and combined to produce the state of extreme political tension that led through rebellion to the first modern revolutionary dictatorship -- Cromwell's prototype of the totalitarian state - but also to its contradiction.
For the very individualism that plunged the middle classes into a political and military struggle for the creation of a class oligarchy veiled by democratic pronouncements resulted among the lower classes in the emergence of two radical movements. The larger was that of the Levellers, ancestors of the Chartists and advocates of universal suffrage. Though some of them, like Walwyn, suggested community of property, their general demand was for political rather than economic equality, and for a democratic constitution that would do away with the
privileges arrogated to themselves by the higher officers of the New Model Army. In curious anticipation of French Revolutionary invective, one Cromwellian pamphleteer stigmatized the Levellers as 'Switzerizing anarchists'. But it was not the Levellers who represented the really anarchistic wing of the English revolutionary movement in the seventeenth century. Rather, it was the ephemeral group whose peculiar form of social protest earned them the name of Diggers.
The Levellers were drawn mainly from the lower ranks of the New Model Army, who wanted their share in governing the country they had fought to liberate from the rule of Divine Right Kings. The Diggers, on the other hand, were mostly poor men, victims of the economic recession that followed the Civil War, and their demands were principally social and economic. They considered they had been robbed by those who remained rich, not only of political rights, but even of the elementa right to the means of survival. Their protest was a cry of hunger, and their leaders, Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard, had both suffered from the troubles of the time. Winstanley was a former Lancashire mercer who had come to London, set himself up in the cloth trade, and been ruined by the recession. 'I was beaten out both of estate and trade, and forced to accept the goodwill of friends crediting to me, to lead a country life.' Everard was an old soldier of the Civil War who had been cashiered for spreading Leveller propaganda.
The Diggers began with theory in 1648, and proceeded to action in 1649. Winstanley's early pamphlet, Truth Lifting Up Its Head Above Scandals, established the philosophic basis of the movement as a rationalistic one. God, in Winstanley's view was none other than 'the incomprehensible spirit, Reason'. 'Where does that Reason dwell?' he asks. 'He dwells in ever creature, according to the nature and being of the creature, but supremely in man. Therefore man is called a rational creature. ... This,' he continues in an interesting anticipation of Tolstoy, 'is the Kingdom of God within man.'
From this almost pantheistic conception of God as immanent Reason there arises a theory of conduct which suggests that if man acts in accordance with his own rational nature he will fulfil his duty as a social being.
Let reason rule the man and he dares not trespass against his fellow creatures, but will do as he would be done unto. For Reason tells him is thy neighbour hungry and naked today, do thou feed him and clothe him, it may be thy case tomorrow and then he will be ready to help thee.
This is near to literal Christianity, but it is just as near to Kropotkin's view of the motivation of mutual aid, and in his most radical pamphlet, The New Law of Righteousness, Winstanley emerges with a series of propositions which reinforce the anarchistic elements in his thought.
Equating Christ with 'the universal liberty', he begins with a statement on the corrupting nature of authority, and here he criticizes not only political power, but also the economic power of the master over his servant and the familial power of the father over the child and the husband over the wife.
Every one that gets an authority into his hands tyrannizes over others; as many husbands, parents, masters, magistrates, that live after the flesh do carry themselves like oppressing lords over such as are under them, not knowing that their wives, children, servants, subjects are their fellow creatures, and hath an equal privilege to share them in the blessing of liberty.
But the 'equal privilege to share in the blessing of liberty' is not an abstract privilege. Its conquest is linked with the attack on property rights, and here Winstanley is emphatic in his insistence on the intimate link between economic and political power.
And let all men say what they will, so long as such are rulers as call the land theirs, upholding this particular property of mine and thine, the common people shall never have their liberty, nor the land be freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings; by reason thereof the Creator of all things is continually provoked.
If Winstanley's criticism of society as he sees it at this crucial point in his career ends in a libertarian rejection of both authority and property, his vision of the kind of egalitarian society he would like to create embodies many features of the ideal society envisaged by the anarchists two centuries later.
When this universal law of equity rises up in every man and woman, then none shall lay claim to any creature and say, This
is mine, and that is yours. This is my work, that is yours. But every one shall put to their hands to till the earth and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall be common to all; when a man hath need of any corn or cattle, take from the next store-house he meets with. There shall be no buying and selling, no fairs or markets, but the whole earth shall be a common treasury for every man, for the earth is the Lord's. ... When a man hath eat, and drink, and clothes, he hath enough. And all shall cheerfully put to their hands to make these things that are needful, one helping another. There shall be none lords over others, but everyone shall be a lord of himself, subject to the law of righteousness, reason and equity, which shall dwell and rule in him, which is the Lord.
Work done in common and its products shared equally; no rulers, and men living peacefully with each other according to the promptings of their own consciences; commerce abolished and in its place a system of open store-houses: it all reads like a primitive sketch for Kropotkin's anarchist-communist society, and the sketch is given the last touch that turns it into a recognizable likeness when we find Winstanley anticipating the whole line of libertarian thinkers by condemning punishment and contending that crime arises from economic inequality.
For surely this particular property of mine and thine hath brought in all misery upon people. For first, it hath occasioned people to steal one from another. Secondly, it hath made laws to hang those that did steal. It tempts people to do an evil action and then kills them for doing of it. Let all judge if this not be a great devil.
Winstanley insists that the only way to end social injustice is for the people themselves to act, and he talks with apocalyptic fervour of the role of the poor in regenerating the world. The Father is now raising up a people to himself out of the dust that is out of the lowest and most despised sort of people. . . . In these and from these shall the Law of Righteousness break forth first.' The people should act, Winstanley contends, by seizing and working the land, which represents the principal source of wealth. He does not think it necessary to seize forcibly the estates of rich men. The poor can settle the commons and the waste lands (which he estimates occupy two thirds of the country) and work them together. From their example men can learn the virtues of communal life, and the
earth become a 'common treasury' providing plenty in freedom for all. The best pages of The New Law of Righteousness rise to a level of prophetic fervour.
And when the Lord doth shew unto me the place and manner, how He will have us that are called common people to manure and work upon the common lands, I will then go forth and declare it in my action, to eat my bread with the sweat of my brows, without either giving or taking hire, looking upon the land as freely mine as anothers.
The Lord did not delay, The New Law of Righteousness appeared in January 1649, and early in April Winstanley and his associates initiated their campaign of direct action by proceeding to St George's Hill, near Walton-on-Thames, where they began to dig the waste land and sow it with wheat, parsnips, carrots, and beans. They numbered in all between thirty and forty people, and Winstanley invited the local land-workers to join them, prophesying that very shortly their numbers would increase to five thousand. But the Diggers seem to have aroused little sympathy even among their poor neighbours, and a great deal of hostility among the local clergy and landowners. They were beaten by paid hooligans and fined by magistrates; their cattle were driven away, their seedlings torn up, and their flimsy huts burned down; they were called before General Fairfax, who failed to intimidate them, and troops of soldiers were sent to investigate them, but were withdrawn when a number of them showed evident interest in the Digger doctrine. Through all these difficult months Winstanley and his followers refused to be provoked into the violence which they abhorred. Their pamphlets appeared one after the other during 1649, full of righteous complaint against a world that refused to acknowledge them; they even sent out apostles into the country, who instigated occupations of waste lands at several places in the Home Counties and even as far afield as Gloucestershire.
But even Digger endurance was not proof against unrelenting persecution. In March 1650 the settlers left St George's Hill, and abandoned their attempt to win England to agrarian communism by the power of example. The other colonies were even
shorter-lived, and as a movement the Diggers had disappeared
by the end of 1650.
For a little while Winstanley continued to spread his ideas, now entirely by literary means, and in 1652 he aimed at the most unlikely convert of all by addressing to Cromwell his last and longest work -- The Law of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored. The relative moderation of this pamphlet suggests that Winstanley's enthusiasm and his extremity of views had both been sapped by the experience of St. George's Hill. For, though he continues to advocate almost complete communism, he puts forward a political plan little different from that of the extreme Levellers, calling for annual Parliaments and providing for various kinds of officers and overseers, introducing compulsion to work and even admitting the death penalty for certain offences against the community, The Law of Freedom aroused little attention, and after publishing it Winstanley retreated into an obscurity so dense that even the place and date of his death are unknown.
The Digger movement left no heritage to later social and political movements, though it may have influenced the Quakers, toward whom some of its supporters were drawn. So completely was it forgotten, indeed, that even William Godwin, writing his History of the Commonwealth, does not appear to have realized how similar the Digger doctrine was to that which he himself developed in Political Justice. Only at the end of the nineteenth century was Winstanley's importance as a precursor of modern social ideologies recognized, and then, on the strength of his communistic ideas, some of the Marxisi tried to claim him as their ancestor. But there is nothin; Marxian about the peasant paradise that Winstanley envisions in The New Law of Righteousness. Its communism is entirelj libertarian, and the effort of Winstanley and his friends to follow out its principles on St George's Hill stands at the beginning of the anarchist tradition of direct action.
No incident or movement in either the American or the French Revolution presented so prophetic a miniature of the anarchist future as the Diggers created in 1648 and 1649. During the nineteenth century both the United States and France were to be rich in varieties of anarchist thought and
deed, but the manifestations of this tendency in the great eighteenth-century revolutions were impulsive and incomplete. Some writers have seen an anarchistic element in the democracy of Thomas Jefferson, but, while he and many of his followers, notably Joel Barlow, admired Godwin's Political Justice, there is little evidence in his writings that he accepted Godwin's views in their extremity, or that he was ever much more than an opponent of excessive government. When he made his famous statement -- 'That government is best which governs least' -- he did not reject authority. On the contrary, he thought it might be made harmless if the people participated thoroughly in its operation.
The influence over government must be shared among the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates in the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting of the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth.
Such passages make it clear that Jefferson looked to a system of universal suffrage in which the people would as far as possible be the rulers -- a condition as opposed to anarchist ideas as any other type of authority. And, while he also spoke of 'a little rebellion, now and then' as 'a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical', he evidently saw this as a corrective rather than a revolutionary force. 'It prevents the degeneracy of government and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.'
Indeed, all of Jefferson's career, as an expansionist President, as a slave-owning Virginian gentleman, as a political leader adept at compromise, reinforces the authoritarian undertone of his writing, and tells strongly against his claim to a place in the pantheon of anarchist ancestors.
A more genuine claim can be put for Thomas Paine, whose life made him a personification of the common ideals that linked the British, American, and French revolutionary movements of the later eighteenth century. Paine's extreme distrust of government undoubtedly influenced Godwin, who associated with him during the crucial years from 1789 to 1792, and his discussions of its demerits actually became, by quotation, part
of the fabric of Political Justice. Paine was one of those who thought that government was indeed a necessity, but a most unpleasant one, brought upon us by the corruption of man's original innocence. At the very beginning of the American War of Independence, in the historic pamphlet entitled Common Sense, he made a distinction between society and government that brought him close to the viewpoint later established by Godwin.
Some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. 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. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last is a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government which we might expect in a country without government our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.
Paine's distrust of government was persistent; indeed, it was probably increased by the difficulties into which his honesty led him even with revolutionary governments. Sixteen years later, in The Rights of Man, he set in opposition to the claims of government the beneficial influence of those natural social urges which Kropotkin later made the subject of Mutual Aid.
Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of men. It existed prior to government and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilized community upon each otiier, create that great chain of connexion which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates
their concerns and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government.
In the same work Paine speaks, like Godwin, of government as a hindrance to 'the natural propensity to society', and asserts that 'the most perfect civilization is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs and govern itself. Here we have the point of view that we have already seen characterizing the typical anarchist; he stands in an evil, government-dominated present, looking back to a lost paradise of primitive innocence and forward to a future whose civilized simplicity will rebuild the Golden Age of liberty. In temperament and ideals Paine came very near to the anarchists; only his lack of optimism in the immediately foreseeable future prevented him from becoming one of them.
The American Revolution's lack of native expressions of anarchism is perhaps due to the masking of the kind of deep social divisions which parted the Diggers from the Grandees in the English Revolution by a common urge toward freedom from foreign oppression; these divisions only became really evident during the nineteenth century.
In the French Revolution, on the other hand, the clash between libertarian and authoritarian trends was evident and at times assumed violent form. Kropotkin devoted one of his most scholarly books, The Great French Revolution, to an interpretation of popular movements during the stormy years from 1789 to the end of the Jacobin rule in 1793. His anarchistic bias led him to overemphasize the libertarian elements, but it also enabled him to see the events of the Revolution stereoscopically, thrown into relief by social and economic causes, rather than as a mere struggle between political parties and personalities.
Certainly we can follow Kropotkin in seeing the emergence during this period of some of the ideas that were eventually to crystallize into nineteenth-century anarchism. Condorcet, one of the great seminal minds of the age, who believed in the indefinite progress of man toward a classless liberty, already put forward while he was hiding from the Jacobins the idea of mutualite, which was to be one of the twin pillars of Proudhon's
anarchism; he conceived the plan of a great mutual-aid association among all the workers that would save them from the perils of those economic crises during which they were normally forced to sell their labour at starvation prices.
The other Proudhonian pillar, federalism, was the subject of much discussion and even experiment during the Revolution. The Girondins conceived it as a political expedient. While the Paris Commune in 1871 was to see in a federal republic the means of saving Paris from a reactionary France, the Girondins imagined that it might save France from a Jacobin Paris. A more genuinely social federalism emerged among the various semi-spontaneous revolutionary institutions of the time, first in the 'districts' or 'sections' into which the capital had been divided for electoral purposes and out of which the Commune of Paris arose, and later in the network of 'Popular Societies and Fraternal Societies, as well as Revolutionary Committees', which tended to take the place of the sections as the latter became subordinate political organs, dominated by the Jacobins. In this connexion Kropotkin quotes an interesting passage from Sigismond Lacroix's Actes de la commune:
The state of mind of the districts ... displays itself both by a very strong sentiment of communal unity and by a no less strong tendency toward self-government. Paris did not want to be a federation of sixty republics cut off haphazard each in its territory; the Commune is a unity composed of its united districts.... But side by side with this undisputed principle, another principle is disclosed . . . which is, that the Commune must legislate and administer for itself, directly, as much as possible. Government by representation must be reduced to a minimum; everything that the Commune can do directly must be done by it, without any intermediary, without any delegation, or else it may be done by delegates reduced to the role of special commissioners, acting under the uninterrupted control of those who have commissioned them. ... The final right of legislating and administering for the Commune belongs to the districts -- to the citizens who come together in the general assemblies of the districts.
In such an organization Kropotkin sees an early expression of 'the principles of anarchism', and concludes that these principles 'had their origin, not in theoretic speculations, but
jn the deeds of the Great French Revolution'. But here again he allows his anxiety to prove the folk origins of anarchism to lead him into exaggeration. What he misses is the fact that the 'right of legislating', even if it is brought down to the level of general assemblies, still exists; the people rule. And so we must regard the revolutionary years as an attempt at direct democracy rather than at anarchy. Yet, even if it was not anarchist in any true sense, the Commune was -- like its successor in 1871 -- federalist, and here it anticipated Proudhon by developing sketchily the kind of practical framework in which he thought an anarchist society might develop.
But we have to look beyond Condorcet's mutualism and the federalism of the Commune to find the real proto-anarchists of the French Revolution. Kropotkin was so concerned with tracing popular manifestations that he neglected unduly the individuals who came nearest to expressing an anarchistic attitude toward the events of their times. He paid only scant attention to Jacques Roux, Jean Varlet, and the Enrages who gathered round them; yet if there are any anarchist ancestors in the French Revolution, it is among these courageous intransigents, unsuccessful and historically obscure as they were, that we must find them.
The movement of the Enrages appeared during 1793, and ran like a sullen ground bass through the year of the Terror. Like the Digger movement during the English Civil War, it emerged at a time of economic recession; to a great extent it was a response to the economic distress of the poor people of Paris and Lyons, but it was also a reaction against the social distinctions which marked the hardening power of the ascendant middle class.
The Enrages were not a party in the modern sense. They had no organization, no agreed common policy. They were a loose group of like-minded revolutionaries who cooperated in the most rudimentary manner, yet who were united in rejection of the Jacobin conception of state authority, who advocated that the people act directly, and who saw in communistic economic measures rather than in political action a way to end the sufferings of the poor. The accusation brought against Roux by the Jacobins, that he told the people that 'every kind
of government must be proscribed', is in effect true of them all.
Jacques Roux, the most celebrated of the Enrages, was one of the priests of the Revolution, a country clergyman who, even before he reached Paris in 1790, had been accused of inciting the peasants of his district to burn and pillage the chateaux of landowners who attempted to enforce their rights to seigneurial dues. 'The land belongs to all equally,' he is said to have told his parishioners. He remained a priest after the Revolution, in which he appears to have seen a reflection of the pure spirit of Christianity; he once defined its task as 'making men equal between each other as they are to all eternity before God'. But it is difficult to believe that a man of Roux's temperament and attitude remained an orthodox Roman Catholic; his idea of God was probably not far from Gerrard Winstanley's.
Roux's sincerity made him as poor as the strictest of Christian ascetics, and his compassion for the workers of the Gravilliers quarter in which he lived seems to have been one of the causes for the extremity of his radicalism, yet there was a hard fanatical edge to his character which led him into the one action that odiously mars his memory. While Thomas Paine pleaded for the life of Louis XVI, Roux was among those who were charged with witnessing the King's execution. Before leaving the prison, Louis asked if he could confide his will to him as a priest. Roux replied coldly: 'I am here only to lead you to the scaffold.' Yet the man who gloated on the destruction of the King as the living manifestation of authority later protested from his own prison cell against the brutalities which the Terror was inflicting on men and women whose only crime was the rank into which they were born by chance.
From the beginning Roux was active in the revolutionary life of Paris. He frequented the Club of the Cordeliers, and in March 1792 hid Marat in his own house, an act which did not save him later from the attacks of the self-styled 'friend of the people'. He ran unsuccessfully as candidate for the Convention, and eventually became a member of the General Council of the Commune.
It was not until the end of 1792 that Roux began to show the extremity of views he had evolved while working among
the shoemakers and carpenters of Gravilliers, who were his closest associates. The failure of the Revolution to fulfil the demands he had made on it during its first year was weighing on his mind, and he delivered a speech at this time in which he gave a first hint of anarchistic tendencies by declaring that 'senatorial despotism is as terrible as the sceptre of kings because it chains the people without their knowing it and brutalizes and subjugates them by laws they themselves are supposed to have made'. During the unruly weeks that followed, when petitioners appeared at the bar of the Convention with demands for the control of prices, and the poor people of Gravilliers rioted against profiteering shopkeepers, Roux defended them, and may even have played some part in inciting them.
During March 1793 Roux was joined by the young revolutionary orator Jean Varlet. Like Roux, Varlet was an educated man. He came of good family, had studied at the College d'Harcourt, and at the time of the Revolution had a modest private income as well as a post in the Civil Service. The Revolution filled him with the kind of enthusiasm that can turn to bitterness when it is frustrated. He became a popular orator, and then, in March 1793, emerged as a leader of the earliest attacks on the Girondins. But, just as behind Roux's agitation over prices lay the idea of common ownership, so behind Varlet's attack on the most conservative group in the Convention lay a general condemnation of the idea of government by representation.
Though there is no evidence that Varlet and Roux had collaborated beforehand -- and even some evidence of mutual jealousy between these two popular agitators -- by June 1793 they were together in a new agitation over the cost of living, and Jacques Roux made a series of speeches in which he not only denounced the class structure which the Revolution had allowed to survive -- 'What is liberty, when one class of men starve another?' -- but also suggested that the law protects exploitation, which prospers 'in its shadow'. Because he did not trust legislators, he demanded that the condemnation of profiteering be written into the constitution in such a way as to be safe from meddling governments.
Through 1793 the agitation of the Enrages continued. They were joined by Theophile Leclerc from Lyons and by the beautiful and talented actress Claire Lacombe with her organization of women, La Societe des Republicaines Revolutionnaires. At the same time, the hostility of the Jacobins narrowed around them, particularly when their voices were raised against the state-operated Terror. To Robespierre the antigovemmental implications of the Enrages' speeches and of their ephemeral journals (Roux's Le Publiciste and Leclerc's L'Ami du peuple) were as evident as they seem to us today; he had no intention of tolerating their agitation indefinitely. Roux and Varlet were arrested. Claire Lacombe's society was suppressed, despite a protest demonstration of six thousand angry women. Roux, called before the Revolutionary Tribunal and realizing that his death was inevitable, cheated the guillotine by painfully cormmitting suicide. 'I do not complain of the tribunal,' he said before he died. 'It has acted according to the law. But I have acted according to my liberty.' To die placing liberty above law is the death of an anarchist.
Yet it was reserved for Varlet, who survived the Terror, to state explicitly the anarchistic conclusions that are to be drawn from the movement of the Enrages. After Robespierre had fallen and the surviving Enrages had rejoiced over his passing, Varlet witnessed the subsequent tyranny of the Directory, and in anger he published what we must regard as the earliest anarchist manifesto in continental Europe. Appropriately, it was entitled Explosion; the title-page bore an engraving showing clouds of smoke and flame billowing around a burning classical structure, and above the engraving an epigraph: 'Let revolutionary government perish, rather than a principle.'
Surveying the years of the Revolution, Varlet declares: Despotism has passed from the palace of kings to the circle of a committee. It is neither the royal robes, nor the sceptre, nor the crown that makes kings hated, but ambition and tyranny. In my country there has only been a change in dress.
Why, he goes on to ask, should a revolutionary government have in this way become as much a tyranny as the rule of a king? Partly, he suggests, because the intoxication of power makes men wish to see it remain for ever in their own hands.
But there is more to the matter than the mere weakness of men; here is a contradiction within the very institution of government.
What a social monstrosity, what a masterpiece of Machiavellianism, this revolutionary government is in fact. For any reasoning being, Government and Revolution are incompatible, at least unless the people wishes to constitute the organs of power in permanent insurrection against themselves, which is too absurd to believe.
Here, at the very end of their movement, the last of the Enrages makes clear its implications. It is interesting to observe how tardily these early French libertarians brought themselves to the open rejection of government. Even in comparison with Winstanley, their lack of a developed programme or philosophy is remarkable. But their time was short -- a few packed months of action -- and they worked too near the centre of the revolution they had helped to make for their ideas to crystallize sharply in such a period. Winstanley had been able to stand on the edge of events and to formulate his theories as far as his knowledge would allow, and then to proceed to action with a philosophy to inspire him in his deeds.
Yet the French Revolution was not so unproductive in anarchist thought as this account may have made it appear. In the same year as Jean Varlet published his Explosion, William Godwin in England published the first great treatise on the evils of government, Political Justice. And it is doubtful indeed if Political Justice would even have been conceived if the French Revolution had not happened when it did.