James Joll, The Anarchists, Second Edition, 1979.


Chapter I
Heresy and reason


There are movements in the history of all religions which reject all authority, whether temporal or spiritual, and claim complete liberty to act in accordance with an inner light. And, both because of persecution and as a mark of their complete turning away from the world, the devotees of many heretical sects were forced into clandestinity and conspiracy. In the Christian church movements of this kind are familiar enough. They have been studied by the sociologists who want to establish the laws of human social and political behaviour; they have been quoted by Marxist writers as examples of the first stirrings of proletarian revolt and as early stages in the class struggle. Other writers1 have attempted to show the links between these ways of thought and action and the all-embracing totalitarian movements of our own time. Certain of these sects have undoubtedly attracted men and women of the same type as were later to be captivated by the ideas of the anarchist movement; and, before discussing the development of modern anarchism, it is perhaps worth briefly considering what recurrent human needs seem to be satisfied by these extreme beliefs and what kind of people are drawn to them.

All heresies are movements of revolt against established authority, but some of them are purely religious and doctrinal. Their attack is on the beliefs held by the established church and their criticism of the social order is implicit only. They do not have as their objective the changing of social conditions in this world, but rather withdrawal from it and a purification of religious beliefs in preparation for the next. Yet any heresy which demands a withdrawal from the world implies a criticism of the world's values. And, moreover, the very act of withdrawal, especially if it led to [4] the establishment of a group of like-minded devotees, often involved those who practised it in measures which might seem dangerously subversive. Many sects, such as the Waldensians in north Italy and southern France in the early thirteenth century, made a cult of poverty -- and thus implicitly condemned their fellow citizens who pursued riches. Others, as one of them told an ecclesiastical court near Turin about 1030, practised a kind of communism among themselves -- 'omnem nostram possessionem cum omnibus hominibus communem habemus'.2 Such movements of renunciation did not necessarily disturb the authorities; and the instincts which gave rise to them could be canalized into the service of the church and inspire the great orders of mendicant friars.3 There were, however, sects of an even more subversive kind, which, without going so far as to provoke open political revolt, yet rejected the values of existing society so completely as to make the authorities regard them as inherently dangerous. These are the movements which are loosely grouped as the Gnostic heresies. In the Middle Ages the most famous of these was that of the Cathari or Albigensians, who won the support of the counts of Toulouse in the thirteenth century, and who were only suppressed after a bloody civil war and persecution.

The central belief of the Gnostic sects was that the existing world was totally corrupt, unreal, transient and of no importance. It was the world of the spirit that mattered, the spiritual values and exercises which kept the soul in touch with the eternity for which it was ultimately destined after it had escaped from the snares and delusions of this world. This was an attitude which could have very different results in practice. Some, like the Cathari of Languedoc themselves, practised an ascetic purity of life as a sign of their rejection of the world's values. But this austerity was not the only possible way of behaving once the current system of morality had been dismissed. If the world were viewed as transient, then one's conduct in it did not matter as none of the accepted moral rules applied, and, indeed, actions which defied these rules could be held to be in the interests of the true faith. It is easy to see how sects which professed a disregard for accepted values could very quickly be suspected of every kind of immorality and debauchery. The propaganda against the Albigensians, for example, is full of accusations of every kind of [5] vice, especially sexual. Any group of people which met in secret, which was reputed to have repudiated marriage, and which rejected as irrelevant the ties and standards of existing society, was almost inevitably bound to seem to the authorities to be an intolerable danger. And, even if it is true that, in the history of heretical sects, examples can be found of conduct that could be labelled immoral by the standards of contemporary society, it is also true that accusations of sexual misbehaviour are one of the easiest ways of inciting men to action against a minority. All doctrines, whether religious or anarchist, which wholly deny the value of the existing order of things may produce either puritans or libertines; and a single one of the latter quickly makes the public forget the far greater number of the former.

Men were attracted by the Gnostic heresies because they were stirred by a violent hatred of what seemed to be the false values of the existing order. By the circumstances of the time they were forced into small clandestine communities; and often the secrecy which was forced on them developed into a love of conspiracy for its own sake. The rejection of the world could lead to extremes of ascetic devotion; or occasionally it could lead to acts of shocking and violent defiance of existing morality. The reaction of the worldly authorities to movements of this kind has always been the same: fear of the subversive results which follow the denial of existing values leads to persecution, based on rumours of a widespread conspiracy to overthrow the whole social order; and in turn the rumours are turned into an effective propaganda campaign in which every sort of accusation, smear and innuendo is used against the victims, regardless of their actual behaviour or crimes.

However, while those religious sects whose doctrines and practice were based on a withdrawal from the world and a contempt for its values have obvious similarities with many later Utopian and quietist beliefs, as well as with an extreme kind of anarchist individualist nonconformity, it is the sects that had an explicit programme of social change in this world which have been claimed as the ancestors of later revolutionary movements and which, indeed, do have many features in common with them. The history of medieval heresies is full of movements like that led by Tachelm in Flanders in the twelfth century, who persuaded his [6] followers to withhold tithes on the grounds that 'sacraments were no better than pollutions, churches no better than brothels'.4 In cases of this kind resentment against the worldliness and alleged corruption of the established church led to action which was revolutionary in its implications. Sometimes the leader and his followers set themselves up as an ideal community waiting for the Second Coming, in confident expectation that it was imminent. Others limited their attack on the powers and corruption of the church to a more general demand for social justice: 'magistrates, provosts, beadles, mayors - nearly all live by robbery . . . they all batten on the poor . . . the stronger robs the weaker', one fourteenth-century pamphleteer wrote, in language which comes close to that of later movements of social revolt.5 And another agitator was already posing the question of what happens to the surplus value of the goods produced by the poor. 'I would like to strangle the nobles and the clergy, every one of them.. .. Good working men make the wheaten bread but they never chew it; no, all they get is the sifting from the corn, and from good wine they get nothing but the dregs and from good cloth nothing but the chaff. Everything that is tasty and good goes to the nobles and clergy.'6

Movements of this kind based their demand for social changes on a belief in the immediate possibility of the millennium -- a combination of the Second Coming and a return to the Golden Age of the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Some of these beliefs survived and recurred over centuries; others were tacitly absorbed into orthodox doctrines. Most of these sects, however, met the fate that awaited the Utopian groups of later centuries. The leader would become increasingly megalomaniac; the group would split into rival movements; or else it would provoke the resentment of the authorities, and its chief members would be burnt at the stake. It is easy to understand the type of temperament that was attracted to movements of this kind. There was simultaneously a sense of desperation, a feeling that there was something hopelessly wrong with the world, and at the same time there was a firm belief in the possibility of putting things right, if only the institutions which hindered the doing of God's will could be destroyed. What is harder to discover is whether there were any common social or economic factors which led to these movements of [7] revolt, and whether the historian would be justified in comparing these movements, sociologically as well as psychologically, to some of the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is tempting to look for similarities of external circumstances under which Utopian or millenarian sects flourished; and it is a temptation which not all writers about heresies have resisted. One historian, for example, boldly explains the success of the Cathar movement in Languedoc by writing: 'With their lively taste for independence, for personal liberty, the population of this region felt itself in harmony with a doctrine which implied as its essence spiritual liberation and the dignity of the individual.'7 How convenient it would be to the historian of anarchist movements to be able to accept this view, and thus account for the success of Spanish anarchism by applying it to the artisans of Catalonia, the land bordering on Languedoc! However, he would then find it hard to explain the continuous success of millenarian heresies among the less volatile Dutch or Czechs. Nevertheless, it does seem that, although occasionally, as in the case of the Albigensians, the nobility joined these movements for their own political ends, or even for that matter from genuine conviction, the bulk of the support for them came from the lower classes of society. Thus, as the Cathar movement declined and was driven deeper underground, its most faithful adherents were to be found among the weavers and butchers and, lower still in the social scale, the whores and the strolling players.8

Many of these movements arose in periods of social and economic change when the population was increasing fast and urban industry growing. Thus the cloth cities of Flanders, and the growing industrial centres in the west and south of Germany were, as Professor Cohn has suggested, areas where these heretical movements were especially frequent in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For the most part, however, the evidence about the background of these medieval heresies is too scanty to justify any generalization about the social and economic conditions which produced them. They spread from one country to another and from one class to another, and they naturally grew more rapidly when traditional ties were loosened by war or other disasters, when pestilence filled men with the fear of imminent dissolution, or when crop failure or the pressure of increased [8] taxation made the economic basis of their lives uncertain. In such circumstances it was not surprising that the foundations of the social system should be shaken by waves of mass religious emotion.

It is in writing about the Reformation that historians have made more determined efforts to link heretical movements with economic and social change. This is mainly because it is in certain religious movements of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that modern revolutionary writers have seen their precursors, and because they are therefore anxious to interpret these revolts in terms of their own political and philosophical beliefs. Works about communism and anarchism by adherents of these doctrines devote much space to Thomas Müntzer and the Peasants' Revolt in Germany in the sixteenth century, and to the Anabaptists and especially to the group that controlled the city of Münster for a few months of desperate 'war communism' in 1535. This interpretation, by which religious reformers are made to appear primarily apostles of social revolution, has often been pressed too far, and it underestimates the extent to which men are moved by abstract ideas and the genuinely religious motives which prompt many of their actions. Nevertheless it is true that many of the religious movements of the Reformation had a revolutionary content and attacked not only the religious dogmas of the established church but also the social and political institutions of the established state.

Thomas Müntzer, who became a revolutionary leader after starting as a purely religious reformer like Luther, began as a priest in the church he was to attack so bitterly, and at the start was much influenced by Luther's doctrines. However, Luther's criticism and, above all, Luther's doctrine of justification by faith were too mild for Müntzer's turbulent and twisted nature, and, from 1520 on, he plunged into the most violent agitation, demanding the immediate destruction of the existing order of things in order to prepare the way, here and now, for the advent of the Kingdom of God upon Earth. It was an appeal of a kind that always finds a response in a time of change, when the hopes of a rapid transformation of the world have been raised and then disappointed by the slow pace of reform; and it was an appeal to which the peasants of Thuringia, as well as the silver miners of [9] Zwickau and the copper miners of Mansfeld, where Müntzer preached his apocalyptic doctrine, responded eagerly. For a time members of the ruling house of Saxony showed some interest in his teaching, but, partly at Luther's prompting, they soon realized that Muntzer's views implied a social as well as a religious revolution, and over the next two or three years Muntzer's writings became more and more outspokenly and unequivocally revolutionary in content. In 1525 he became involved in events which sealed his reputation as an apostle of social revolt; for in March of that year the great Peasants' Revolt broke out all over Germany. Its causes were many and complex; and how far Müntzer was responsible for stirring it up is still a subject of controversy. There is no doubt, however, that, at least in Thuringia, his doctrines exacerbated the state of unrest caused by the establishment of strong princely power in the German states and the consequent increase in taxation. And there is no doubt, too, that Müntzer himself welcomed the upheaval as a step on the way to the overthrow of the existing order. Müntzer joined the peasant army, and, when it was easily defeated, he was captured and executed.

However, the historical problems of the causes of the Peasants' Revolt and Muntzer's exact part in it are not what is important for the study of later revolutionary movements. What gave Müntzer his appeal to subsequent revolutionary writers, whether Marxist or anarchist, was his association with a genuine attempt at a social revolution and the revolutionary violence of the language in which he expressed himself. It is this above all that brings him close to later anarchists. He insisted constantly that the wholesale overthrow of the existing system by force was a necessary preliminary to the new order. 'At them, at them while the fire is hot', he exhorted his followers. 'Don't let your sword get cold! Don't let it go lame! Hammer cling-clang on Nimrod's anvil! Throw their tower to the ground! So long as they are alive you will never shake off the fear of men. . . .'9 Müntzer is typical of one class of revolutionary in that it is the act of revolt that is more important to him than the nature of the post-revolutionary world. And in this, at least, he is the true precusor of many of the revolutionaries of a later age.

The Anabaptists are also claimed as precursors by the [10] revolutionaries of the nineteenth century. Here again the similarities are perhaps more of temperament than of doctrine or circumstance; but there is at least one episode, the siege of Munster in 1535, which has achieved legendary importance in revolutionary historiography. In fact, it is a mistake to talk of the Anabaptists as if they were a single coherent movement. The various Anabaptist groups often had little in common except their belief that they belonged to the Community of Saints. They included a wide variety of doctrines and temperaments among their adherents. Some were violent revolutionaries, some tranquil and puritanical quietists. Some believed in practical revolutionary action; others preferred, like the Gnostic heretics in the Middle Ages, to withdraw from this world and its ways and to place their hopes in the next. All of them, however, agreed in denying the necessity of the state. Since the baptized were in direct contact with God, all further intermediaries between God and themselves were redundant. States and churches were unnecessary, indeed evil, since they stood between man and the divine light that was in him and which would direct him how to order his life. From this it was an easy step to demand the destruction of existing society and the substitution of a millenarian new order whose laws would be revealed to the faithful by the inner light of a prophet or leader: and, as so often in the history of revolutionary movements, what began as a movement of liberation could easily end as terrorist autocracy.

The Anabaptists were to be found in Switzerland, Germany and the Low Countries, and it was in the city of Munster in Westphalia -- a state under the rule of its bishop - that the movement assumed its most extreme revolutionary form. Munster had become a Lutheran stronghold by 1533, but its inhabitants quickly became converts to the more exciting Anabaptist creed. The town and its neighbourhood had for the past few years suffered from a series of disasters and difficulties - plague, economic distress, heavy taxation, religious strife -- and its people were in the mood to listen to prophets of doom and destruction, and to place their hopes in a cataclysmic and imminent change. Thus it was easy for the Anabaptist 'prophets', Jan Mathys of Harlem and his disciple and successor John Boeckeler, known as John of Leyden, to rouse them to a state of revolutionary fervour [11] and excitement that lasted for about a year, during which they believed that Münster was about to become the New Jerusalem, while all outside it would perish. The Anabaptists took complete control of the town. Roman Catholics and Lutherans were expelled; this led the bishop, still the nominal sovereign of the city, to take action. With an army of mercenaries, and later with the help of neighbouring rulers, the bishop laid siege to the city, and the Anabaptists' social revolution and reign of terror were carried out simultaneously with the fighting of a fierce war. First of all, to show their contempt for the existing laws of property, they destroyed all records of contracts and debts. (This destruction of the physical evidence of an unjust social structure was a feature of Italian and Spanish anarchist movements in the nineteenth century; and their revolts usually began by a ceremonial burning of the property and other registers at the Town Hall.) Then a kind of emergency communism was instituted, with communal stores of food, clothing and bedding. The movement was militantly anti-intellectual (again a feature of some later revolutionary movements) and books and manuscripts were destroyed as worldly and unchristian.

As might be expected, Anabaptist rule in Münster did not last long. Jan Mathys was killed leading a sortie; and John of Ley den's rule soon turned into an insane megalomaniac terror -- accompanied by the polygamy that was so common a feature in the lives of the 'prophets' of later Utopian communities. In June 1535 the city was captured and early the following year John of Leyden was tortured to death by his captors. The whole incident has acquired a certain legendary character in the genealogy of revolutions, and, like Müntzer, John of Leyden has been claimed by later revolutionaries as one of themselves, although in fact his rule in Münster exemplified only the blindest, maddest and most negative aspects of anarchistic fanaticism and violence.

What emerges from any study of heretical religious movements is that certain kinds of people feel a recurrent need to react violently against the existing order, to question the right of the existing authorities to rule, and to assert instead that all authority is unnecessary and evil. And this revolt against society and its leaders is accompanied, according to the temperament concerned, either by a belief in the healing properties of violent destruction, [12] the importance of revolution as an end in itself, or else by a boundlessly optimistic belief in the possibilities of an immediate and radical change for the better, the building of a completely new social order on the ruins of the old. The total rejection of the values of contemporary society, a hatred of authority, a belief in the possibility and indeed the imminence of a complete revolution -- these characteristics are accompanied by a sense of belonging to an elect and often secret group.

The temperament that once led men to adopt millenarian, Utopian religious beliefs may (as some writers have suggested) have led them in our own time to support all-embracing, totalitarian revolutionary dogmas, but it can also lead to the rejection of all authority and to the revolt against any sort of state. Beliefs which lead one man to the acceptance of a totalitarian dictatorship may lead another to the complete rejection of all authority.

Although anarchism is also a product of the rationalism of the eighteenth century, and anarchist political theory is based on confidence in man's reasonable nature and belief in the possibility of intellectual and moral progress, this is only one of its strands. The other is a tendency which can only be described as religious, and which links the anarchists emotionally, if not doctrinally, with the extreme heretics of earlier centuries. It is the clash between these two types of temperament, the religious and the rationalist, the apocalyptic and the humanist, which has made so much of anarchist doctrine seem contradictory. It is also this double nature that gives anarchism a wide and universal appeal. The beliefs of anarchists cannot be understood without an understanding of the political ideas they inherited from the Enlightenment. But their actions can often be explained only in terms of the psychology of religious belief.


If it is the heretical religious temperament that drives men to become anarchists, many of the actual doctrines they have adopted are, like most other systems of modern political thought, derived from the philosophers of the eighteenth century. A belief [13] in man's infinite possibilities of improvement, a confidence that societies can be reformed on rational principles, these are ideas that are common to Condorcet and Bentham, Montesquieu and Helvetius; and they form the basis of all subsequent liberal theory and practice. Yet, while anarchism presupposes the natural goodness of man, it is a doctrine that came to differ profoundly from the political ideas of the Enlightenment. The French philosophers of the eighteenth century were not by any means anarchists: they accepted the idea of the state, and of a state that might, in certain circumstances, have wide powers to coerce its citizens in their own interests. Moreover, even the most radical writings of the eighteenth century -- Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality, for example -- envisage that it is by political change that the social reforms that they advocate will come about, whereas the anarchists have always insisted on the necessity of social and economic change as opposed to political reforms, which they have constantly regarded as irrelevant and even harmful.

The only eighteenth-century thinkers who might be claimed as forerunners of the anarchists are one or two figures on the fringe of the great philosophical movements of the day, shadowy figures with cranky views such as the Abbe Jean Meslier, or the mysterious Morelly, whose 'negation of government' Proudhon was later to praise. Yet these writers were so obscure and so uninfluential that their very existence has sometimes been questioned. Meslier's Testament, for example, was first published by Voltaire, who has sometimes been suspected of being the author, using the name Meslier as a convenient pseudonym for the utterance of violently anti-clerical sentiments. In fact, Meslier does seem to have been a real person, a village priest enraged by his ecclesiastical superiors and moving on from criticisms of the established church to an attack on all religion and all authority as such. The title of his Testament gives the gist of his message: 'Memoirs of the thoughts and sentiments of Jean Meslier concerning part of the errors and false conduct and government of mankind, in which can be seen clear and evident demonstrations of the vanity and falseness of all divinities and all religions. . . .' What made Meslier a true if ineffective revolutionary, and has earned him his place in anarchist history, is the violence of his language and his insistence -- in phrases that might be by that other rebellious priest Thomas [14] Müntzer -- on the need for action: 'Let all the great ones of the earth and all the nobles hang and strangle themselves with the priests' guts, the great men and nobles who trample on the poor people and torment them and make them miserable.'10 Sometimes, too, he strikes the authentic note of social revolt that is characteristic of anarchists: 'Your salvation lies in your hands. . . keep for yourselves with your own hands all the riches and goods you produce so abundantly with the sweat of your brow; keep them for yourselves and your fellows. Do not give anything to the proud and useless idlers who do nothing useful in this world.'11 In general, however, it is his anti-clerical and anti-religious sentiments which appealed to men like Voltaire and d'Holbach, who were pleased to discover this eccentric and 'primitive' figure uttering, with sincerity and naivete, views which expressed some of their own feelings.

Morelly is an even more shadowy figure. Was he invented by Diderot? Was he the same as the Morelli whom Rousseau knew in Geneva? There seems still to be considerable uncertainty about the answers. However, his Code de la Nature, published in 1755, shows how the accepted ideas of the eighteenth century could be given a radical and anarchistic tinge. 'From the sceptre to the shepherd's crook, from the tiara to the humblest smock, if one asks who governs men, the answer is easy; personal interest or the interest of another which is adopted as one's own for reasons of vanity and which always derives from the first. But what is the origin of these monstrosities? Property.'12 Yet there is little that is truly anarchist in Morelly's crabbed book. If he is claimed as a forerunner by some anarchist writers, it is simply because of his belief that institutions must somehow conform to the intentions of Nature, and because he saw that the question of property was the fundamental one for both morals and politics. In fact, Morelly is more accurately described as a forerunner of the most rigorous communism than of anarchism. The two doctrines, during the nineteenth century, are often close to each other; and, as will be seen, some later theorists, such as Kropotkin, called themselves anarcho-communists. Yet anarchists and communists are temperamentally far apart; all that they have in common is their view of property and their rejection of private ownership. The true anarchist tradition would reject the intense communal regulation [15] of the individual's activities which Morelly suggested, for, although Morelly proclaimed the abolition of private property and the right of every citizen to be supported by the community, it was a community of spartan discipline which he envisaged: everyone was to do compulsory labour service between the age of twenty and twenty-five; marriage was compulsory at the age of puberty, and no divorce was allowed for at least ten years. Everyone was rigidly kept in his place in the family; families were organized into tribes, and tribes into cities, so that Morelly seems to have envisaged a hierarchy of authorities rather than the free association of independent communes which is characteristic of later anarchist thinking. Morelly had no immediate or, for that matter, long-term influence, and it is only because of the extreme nature of his communist doctrines and his attack on private property that he has regularly found a place in the writings of communist and anarchist historians.

The true eighteenth-century ancestor of anarchism, as of almost all other later political doctrines, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although minor and forgotten figures like Meslier and Morelly may have thought of specific ideas and institutions comparable to those of the later anarchists, it is Rousseau who created the climate of ideas in which anarchism was possible. It is Rousseau who changed the whole style of political discussion and who fused the rationalism of the philosophes with the warmth, enthusiasm and sensibility of the romantics. In some degree, what he said is less important than the way he said it, and it is for this reason that he finds a place in the history of all subsequent political thought, so that he is seen by some as the forerunner of 'totalitarian democracy' and by others as the ancestor of the most extreme libertarianism. As far as the anarchists were concerned, it was perhaps Rousseau's ideals of Nature and of education which were to have the most influence.

To the belief in the perfectibility of man and of human institutions, Rousseau added in particular the notion of the Noble Savage, a figure dear to all anarchists' hearts. 'Man was born free and is everywhere in chains' becomes, in fact, a first principle of anarchist thought. The idea of a happy primitive world, a state of nature in which, so far from being engaged in a struggle of all against all, men lived in a state of mutual cooperation, was to have [16] a powerful appeal to anarchists of all kinds. And, even if Rousseau himself was to contribute to the development of political theories based on strong state power, the ideas of primitive simplicity and goodness which he propounded, the theories of rational education which he advocated, are very similar to those of Kropotkin or of Francisco Ferrer.

The fundamental idea that man is by nature good and that it is institutions that corrupt him remains the basis of all anarchist thought; and almost all anarchists would agree with Rousseau's remark that 'On faconne les plantes par la culture et les hommes par l'education.13 And, just as in Emile's ideal education, the child's latent qualities are drawn out by sincerity, simplicity, liberty and natural behaviour, so in the anarchist society men's instincts for good will be brought out by much the same treatment.

While Condorcet or Rousseau contributed many of the ideas to the anarchist thinkers of the next century, and while figures like Meslier or Morelly provide the anarchist historian with ideological links between certain apostles of modern social revolt and their predecessors, there was one English writer who, starting from the commonplaces of eighteenth-century philosophical belief, elaborated the most complete and worked-out statement of rational anarchist belief ever attempted, a philosophy of anarchism carried through to its logical conclusions, however surprising and absurd these might be. This was William Godwin. Godwin was born in 1756 and lived to the age of eighty. During his long life he was to be very famous -- so much so that his second wife was able to introduce herself to him by asking: 'Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?' -- yet by the time he died he was almost forgotten.

Godwin was the son of a Calvinist minister and was himself first intended to be an Independent clergyman. His upbringing left a permanent mark on his thought, and although his reaction against it was what turned him into an anarchist ('To Godwin God was a tyrant to be dethroned', as H. N. Brailsford has put it),14 the puritanism and asceticism of Calvinistic doctrine colour all his political beliefs. His Utopia, like that of so many British political thinkers, is redolent of the nonconformist chapel, even though religion has been banished from it. Godwin had considerable success as a novelist, but his great work is the Enquiry [17] Concerning Political Justice, published in the midst of the French Revolution in 1793. By this time Godwin was already disillusioned about the prospects of achieving any sort of reform within the existing political system. Five years earlier, at the time of the Westminster election of 1788, he had written: 'Scandal, pitiful mean mutual scandal, never was more plentifully displayed. Electioneering is a trade so despicably degrading, so eternally incompatible with moral and mental dignity that I can scarcely believe a truly great mind capable of the dirty drudgery of such vice.'15 But the experiences of a direct revolution in France were no more encouraging than the workings of the British constitution at home. Godwin, for all his sympathy with the Revolution and its supporters in England, was a bitter opponent of Jacobinism and the Terror. All his political thought was inspired by beliefs and ideals very different from those of Robespierre, and it is ironical, as well as being typical of the fate of many anarchists, that he was regarded at home as the most extreme kind of revolutionary terrorist.

The fundamental principle of Godwin's political thought is that justice and happiness are indissolubly linked. The practice of virtue is the true road to individual happiness, he writes.16 Consequently, the society which is based on justice will be a society whose members will necessarily be happy. It is a theory which implies a profoundly optimistic view of human nature, for Godwin does not seem to have doubted for a moment that his ideal society could sooner or later be created. 'Perfectibility', he wrote, 'is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species, so that the political as well as the intellectual state of man may be presumed to be in a course of progressive improvement.'17 The perfectibility of man is the result of the fact that he is, according to Godwin's extreme version of a doctrine first held by Hume, born without any innate ideas. His mind and character are therefore capable of being influenced to an indefinite degree by suggestions from outside. This suggestibility, the vulnerability of human beings to all forms of intellectual and moral pressure, is both man's weakness and his strength. It is his weakness because it gives governments an almost unlimited power of controlling their subjects by all sorts of propaganda and education. But it is also man's strength, since, given an educational system that [18] inculcates the right ideas, he can learn to live peacefully with his neighbours in a community where force is unnecessary and the good of each is the happiness of all. Since it is one of Godwin's fundamental, and most questionable, premises that man is always amenable to reason and argument, all vice is eradicable by explanation and an understanding of its causes. 'All vice', he says, 'is nothing more than error and mistake reduced into practice and adopted as the principle of our conduct.'18 There are moments when he goes further and suggests that not only man's moral vices but also his physical ills can be cured by the exercise of reason. He looked forward to a remote future when disease and even perhaps death itself might be removed by mental effort: 'We talk familiarly indeed of the limits of our faculties, but nothing is more difficult than to point them out. Mind, in a progressive view at least, is infinite.'19

Usually, in the world as it exists, it is the state which applies the pressure on individuals; and the present political, social and economic order only serves to keep man in ignorance of his true interests and to perpetuate his vices. 'Whips, axes and gibbets, dungeons, chains and racks are the most approved and established methods of persuading men to obedience and impressing upon their minds the lessons of reason. Hundreds of victims are annually sacrificed at the shrine of positive law and political institutions.'20 The only possible way to improve human beings is to remove the causes of their vices. All crime must have a reason; if the reason is removed, the crime will vanish. In Godwin's view there is no crime without a motive, no act that has not a rational aim that can be explained and discussed. It is this that makes the question of property fundamental in any society, since the commonest cause of crime is the lack of the necessities of life. 'The subject of property', he says, 'is the keystone that completes the fabric of political justice.'21

The solution he put forward was simple enough. If property is the cause of all evil, it should be abolished. Men's needs, he thought, were in themselves few; and little would be required in a society where the motives of vanity and ambition, the desire to outshine one's neighbour, had been eradicated by the inculcation of a true scale of values. Moreover, since men would quickly learn to despise ostentation and luxury, the amount of labour required [19] for the necessities of life would be far less than in existing society; and indeed machinery might soon enable manual labour to be abolished almost completely. 'It is by no means clear', Godwin thought, 'that the most extensive operations will not be within the reach of one man; or, to make use of a familiar instance, that a plough may not be turned into a field and perform its office without the need of superintendence.'22 Such tasks as do need to be performed will quickly be allotted on a rational basis: 'Do you want my table? Make one for yourself; or, if I be more skilful in that respect than you, I will make one for you. Do you want it immediately? Let us compare the urgency of your wants and mine, and let justice decide.'23

Godwin is a true anarchist in that he does not envisage property being exploited in common but simply that it should be available for whoever needs it. In fact, he carries his dislike of coercion and of any infringement on the individual to its most extreme logical conclusions. 'Everything that is usually understood by the term cooperation is to some degree an evil. ... If I be expected to eat and work in conjunction with my neighbour, it must either be at a time most convenient to me, or to him, or to neither of us. We cannot be reduced to clockwork uniformity. Hence, it follows that all supererogatory cooperation is to be carefully avoided.'24 Even music is suspect, because it involves an intolerable subjection of the players' individuality:

Shall we have concerts of music? The miserable state of mechanism of the majority of the performers is so conspicuous as to be even at this day a topic of mortification and ridicule. . . . Shall we have theatrical exhibitions? This seems to include an absurd and vicious cooperation. It may be doubted whether men will hereafter come forward in any mode gravely to repeat words and ideas not their own. It may be doubted whether any musical performer will habitually execute the compositions of others.. . .All formal repetition of other men's ideas seems to be a scheme for imprisoning for so long a time the operations of our own mind. It borders perhaps in this respect upon a breach of sincerity, which requires that we should give immediate utterance to every useful and valuable idea that occurs to our thoughts.25

Other forms of communal activity ate equally repugnant. 'Ought I to come at a certain hour', Godwin writes, 'from the museum where I am working, the recess where I am meditating or the observatory where I remark the phenomena of nature, to a certain hall appropriated to the office of eating, instead of eating, as reason bids me, at the time and place most suited to my avocations?'26

The same principles are rigorously applied to the family. Indeed, this is a doubly mistaken institution, for it not only involves unnecessary subordination of one personality to another but it is also based on property. Therefore there is no need of it: sex and reproduction are for Godwin, one cannot help feeling, unnecessary complications for a rational man in a rational society. 'It cannot be definitely affirmed whether it be known in such a state of society who is the father of each child.'27 Children will be brought up on strictly rational principles, though even Godwin admits that in infancy this 'will frequently devolve upon the mother; unless by frequent parturition or by the very nature of these cares, that were found to render her share of the burden unequal; and then it would be amicably and willingly participated by others.'28 Subsequent education will be on lines that go further than those practised by even the most advanced twentieth-century educational reformers. 'No creature in human form will be expected to learn anything, but because he desires it and has some conception of its utility and value; and every man, in proportion to his capacity, will be ready to furnish such general hints and comprehensive views as will suffice for the guidance and encouragement of him who studies from a principle of desire.'29 There are indeed hints that the production of children, and therefore their upbringing and education, may become unnecessary, since reason may yet discover the secret of physical immortality and perpetual youth. Godwin's attitude to sex is, in fact, typical of his view of man's nature. In the ideal society, 'I shall', he writes, 'assiduously cultivate the intercourse of that woman whose accomplishment shall strike me in the most powerful manner. "But it may happen that other men will feel for her the same preference that I do?" This will create no difficulty. We may all enjoy her conversation and we shall all be wise enough to consider the sensual intercourse a very trivial object.'30 [21]

The rational ordering of our relations with each other is carried very far. Since promises create obligations which impinge on us, and arouse expectations which we may not be able to fulfil, they should be made as rarely as possible, in the interest both of personal liberty and sincerity. Since dealing with unwelcome visitors may involve one in the predicament of either telling a lie or submitting to personal inconvenience, the section of Godwin's book entitled 'Of the Mode of Excluding Visitors' shows his morality at work in everyday life. 'Let us suppose that we are ourselves destined . . . to give this answer that our father or our wife is not at home', Godwin says, 'when they are really in the house. Should we not feel our tongues contaminated with the base plebeian lie?' Nor, if he is reasonable, will our visitor mind being turned away: 'He must in reality be the weakest of mankind who should conceive umbrage at a plain answer in this case, when he was informed of the moral considerations that induced me to employ it.' Even if our refusal to see him is due to plain dislike, this is usually 'for some moral fault that we perceive or think we perceive in him. Why should he be kept in ignorance of our opinion respecting him, and prevented from the opportunity either of amendment or vindication?'31 Sincerity, independence, a natural self-restraint, serious high-mindedness, these are the intellectual virtues which Godwin's view of society demands.

The institutions of society, in so far as they are necessary at all, follow logically from Godwin's view of man's nature and of the evils of the existing system. 'The only legitimate object of political institutions is the advantage of individuals.'32 'Government can have no more than two legitimate purposes, the suppression of injustice against individuals within the community, and the common defence against external invasion.'33 This presumably is only in the intervening period before education has removed the causes of injustice by making man rational and therefore virtuous. Godwin is a true anarchist in that, although he accepts some degree of association for minimal administrative purposes- 'an association of such extent as to afford room for the institution of a jury to decide upon the offences of individuals within the community which may chance to arise'34 -- such associations must be as decentralized as possible. The parish is the unit on which they must be based, and no central assembly is necessary. 'If once the [22] unambitious and candid circles of inquiring men be swallowed up in the insatiate gulf of noisy assemblies, the opportunity of improvement is instantly annihilated.'35

Godwin was not a revolutionary in method, however startling his aims must have seemed; and he carefully and consistently avoided any appeal to violence. 'If the government of Great Britain were dissolved tomorrow, unless that dissolution were the result of consistent and digested views of political justice previously disseminated among the inhabitants, it would be very far from leading to the abolition of violence',36 he writes; and, once again, the experience of the French Revolution might be held to prove him right. '1 am bold and adventurous in opinions, not in life,' Godwin once said;37 and it is easy to laugh at so remote and ineffectual a reformer. Nevertheless, he behaved bravely enough in 1794, when the founders of the radical London Corresponding Society were accused of treason by Pitt's government, and Godwin conducted an active campaign in the press and in pamphlets so successfully that the accused were, in fact, acquitted. But his own revolutionary views tended to be more about the future than the present. In spite of his attacks on the family, he was twice married. His first wife was Mary Wollstonecraft, herself a remarkable pioneering reformer and one of the first champions of women's rights in England. She died after a few years of a marriage which brought out a tenderness in Godwin's nature that is unexpected in so cold a rationalist. Their only daughter, Mary, became the wife of Shelley, who was one of Godwin's first disciples. Godwin's second wife, Mrs Clairmont, was a woman of less distinction; and the marriage was not a particularly happy one. [Her daughter by her previous husband was the Clare Clairmont who pursued Byron even more vigorously than her mother had pursued Godwin, and who became the mother of the poet's daughter, Allegra.]

If by becoming a husband and father Godwin might seem to have violated his principles, in other respects he might be said to have behaved as if he were already a member of the ideal community in which each citizen had but to ask in order for his needs to be met. Godwin believed that property was of no importance; he believed that society owed a living to the wise; and, in consequence, he became one of the most notorious and unashamed [23] spongers of his time, constantly borrowing money which he rarely repaid. Nevertheless, the familiar picture of the ageing, impoverished, scrounging Godwin, as he appears in the literature about Shelley (one of his chief victims) and in the memoirs of the early nineteenth century, should not obscure the merits of the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. In stately eighteenth-century prose Godwin unfolds a vision of man and society that remains the most complete statement of that type of anarchist doctrine which is based on an unbounded confidence in the rational nature of man and the possibilities of his improvement. It is as a constructor of theories rather than as a practical revolutionary that Godwin is of interest. Not only was his temperament, as we have seen, unrevolutionary, but his influence was extremely limited. Although the Enquiry sold 4,000 copies and created some stir in the England of the 1790s, where everyone was eager for ammunition for and against the Revolution, there was some truth in the comment Pitt is said to have made about the work: 'A three-guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare.'38 Godwin's fame evaporated fast and his work was forgotten, although it was translated into German, and although Mme de Stael and Benjamin Constant devoted some attention to it. However, he was an influence on Robert Owen, and through him on the early development of British Trade Unionism, while he deeply affected the outlook of both Coleridge and Shelley. There are passages in Shelley, especially in Prometheus Unbound, which are simply Godwin in blank verse.

The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains,
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless
Exempt from cast, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise; but man

It was not until late in the nineteenth century that Godwin was rediscovered, when anarchists were looking for rational doctrines to justify their call to revolution. And, as there are always men who believe in progress and reason just as there are always others who believe in the necessity of violent change and the immediate transformation of the world, Godwin remains an admirable example of the philosophical anarchist, a reminder of what [24] anarchism owes to the doctrines of the Enlightenment, just as other anarchists after him provide examples of the apocalyptic, millenarian temperament which makes anarchism so similar to the religious heresies of the Middle Ages and Reformation.

However, neither a revolutionary temperament nor a rational doctrine was enough to produce the anarchist as he emerged in the nineteenth century. It was the disruptive example of the French Revolution and the growing challenge of the new emerging industrial society that were to produce the circumstances in which both heretics and rationalists could join a movement that provided a fundamental criticism of the old society and a programme of violent action to remedy its defects.


1 Notably Professor Norman Cohn in his admirable Pursuit of the Millennium (London 1957).

2 Quoted in Georg Adler, Geschichte des Sozialismus und Kommunismus von Plato bis zum Gegenwart, Teil I (Leipzig 1899), p. 98.

3 Cohn, op. cit., p. 36.

4 ibid.

5 ibid., p. 89.

6 ibid.

7 Emmanuel Aegerter, Les Heresies du Moyen Age (Paris 1939), p. 42.

8 See, e.g., Arno Beust, Die Katharer (Stuttgart 1953).

9 Cohn, op. cit., p. 267.

10 Quoted in Maxime Leroy, Histoire des idees sociales en France, vol. I: De Montesquieu a Robespierre (Paris 1946), p. 239.

11 Quoted Alain Sergent and Claude Harmel, Histoire de Vanarchie (Paris 1949), p. 35.

12 Morelly, Code de la Nature ou le veritable esprit de ses lois, 17SS, ed. E. Dolleans (Paris 1910), p. 48.

13 J.-J. Rousseau, Emile (Paris 1951), p. 6.

14 H. N. Brailsford, Shelley, Godwin and their Circle (London 1913), p. 80. For Godwin's life, see G. Woodcock, William Godwin (London 1946).

15 Brailsford, op. cit., p. 88.

16 William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (London 1793), 2 vols, vol. I, pp. 233-4.

17 ibid., vol. I, p. 11.

18 ibid., vol. I, p. 31.

19 ibid., vol. II, p. 866.

20 ibid., vol. I, p. 9.

21 ibid., vol. II, p. 788.

22 ibid., vol. II, p. 845.

23 ibid., vol. II, p. 858.

24 ibid., vol. II, p. 844.

25 ibid,, vol. II, pp. 846-7.

26 ibid., vol. II, p. 842.

27 ibid., vol. II, p. 852.

28 ibid., vol. II, p. 853.

29 ibid., vol. II, pp. 853-4.

30 ibid., vol. II, p. 851.

31 .ibid., vol. I, p. 269.

32 ibid., vol. II, p. 558.

33 ibid., vol. II, p. 564.

34 ibid., vol. II, pp. 564-5.

35 ibid., vol. I, p. 215.

36 ibid., vol. II, p. 734.

37 H. S. Salt, Introduction to Godwin's Political Justice (a reprint of Part VIII of the Enquiry) (London 1890), p. 29.

38 Brailsford, op. cit., pp. 91-2.