George Walford: Anarchist Research

In the phrase “Anarchist Research Group,” what does “research” mean? To judge from the Group’s meetings it means the accumulation of information about anarchism and anarchists. (The Bulletin also operates for the most part on this interpretation). At the last meeting, for example, John Moore delivered a highly informative talk on Perlman and the discussion consisted, for the most part, of requests for clarification on details, mention of other anarchist writers who had made similar or contrasting statements, and suggestions of ways in which Perlman’s work might be continued. I went away knowing a good deal more about Perlman and his thinking than when I arrived, and I expect the same was true of others.

This type of research is indispensable, but there seems to be room also for a different approach. Most of those who have had anarchism put before them have not accepted it and we have no ground for expecting the others, when they do encounter it, to respond differently. This suggests that study of the behaviour of non-anarchists, research directed to finding out why most of them do not accept or support anarchism, might well produce results of value to the movement; it is, after all, the non-anarchists who are preventing the introduction of anarchy. This brief article tackles one of the issues involved.

A large part of the anarchist movement – so large that it can almost be said to constitute orthodox anarchism – ascribes the widespread rejection or disregard of anarchism to the suppression imposed by capitalism and the coercive state. If only this can be overcome, it is believed, an anarchist (or at least anarchistic) society will emerge. A tendency towards the sort of freedom anarchists advocate is held to be natural or inherent; anarchists often point to rebellious or casual or disorderly behaviour, or to people quietly enjoying themselves, as evidence for the universality of anarchistic tendencies. The validity of this view is questionable, for those who do not think of themselves as anarchists remain content to act within the constraints imposed by the state. They use such freedom as it allows, and may sometimes press against the limits, but even when violently rioting they show small intention of overturning it and none of doing away with states and coercion generally. To the prospect of anarchy as anarchists understand it they respond, more often than not, with blank incomprehension.

Active supporters of the state are doubtless in the minority, but the great numbers who restrict attention to their personal and family affairs do not thereby show themselves to be practicing anarchy. (Were they doing so we would have had the anarchist society long ago). They are taking the state and its authority over them for granted, so much so that when it orders them out to kill and die they obey with hardly a question. The widespread inclination is towards unthinking acceptance of existing social norms.

This may be due to suppression so effective that in most people the primal tendency towards freedom (in the anarchist sense) is no longer discernible. In order to reach even a tentative decision on the issue we need to look at a society in which capitalism and the state have not exercised their repressive influence, and fortunately this is available. We turn to anthropology and its studies of the pre- capitalist, pre-state foraging communities.

Anthropologists normally work by studying a particular community, and to generalise from any one of these would be to risk repeating the error of Lewis Henry Morgan, who based wide generalisations upon a study of the Iroquois; later research showed that other peoples behaved differently. Fortunately some of the anthropologists have solved the problem for us, by collating the results of individual investigators. Elman R. Service’s The Hunters (he explains that the title was forced on him by his publishers) is one of the more recent of these surveys to focus upon the foragers, and he is quite clear that freedom, in anything like the anarchist sense, is not to be found among them. He emphasises the power of the social control that operates in these small face-to-face communities, speaking of the extreme sensitivity of their members to the feelings of the group. Overt institutions of government do not appear, but etiquette, custom and socio-psychological sanctions exert even closer control over individual people. In the absence of personal rulers “custom is king.” [1]

Harold Barclay, investigating from the anarchist viewpoint, comes up with similar results. Standards of behaviour were seldom or never overtly formulated, and this produces a misleading impression of their absence. Remaining almost entirely implicit as habits, expectations, customs and etiquette, transmitted to the young within the family and by elders to their juniors, rather than in any more public or formal way, they were none the less effective for that. No distinct apparatus, no inspectorate or police force, ensured compliance; instead, the community as a whole performed the task. When the inevitable disagreements arose, requiring a community decision, the early folk held to their non-hierarchical methods, seeking unanimity rather than accepting the continuing presence of a dissenting minority (not that they would have thought in any such terms) and often using a more or less ritualised contest or duel ( among the Eskimo a song-duel) to decide which way the decision should go. Sanctions such as gossip, ridicule and withdrawal usually proved effective against deviants, but as a last resort anybody who persisted in actions contravening the consensus was likely to be killed, with at least the tacit agreement of the community and usually by close relatives, since that was less likely to start a feud. Among some of the peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America, for example, “witches accused of practicing black magic were often slain and these killings went unavenged.” [2] There can hardly be a more unanarchistic act than killing those who refuse to conform; it is taking coercion to its limits. George Woodcock sums up:

“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 towards a traditional pattern in which conformity is expected and the exceptional resented.”[3]

The indications are that the beliefs, attitudes, ideas and behaviours that go to constitute anarchism, particularly those concerning freedom for the individual, were at their minimum in these first communities. Anarchistic tendencies seem to be (as indeed the familiar history of the movement already suggests) advanced developments which have only appeared as significant social influences in, and largely as a reaction to, the version of the authoritarian state which comes with developing capitalism.

One way of testing any conclusion is to approach the subject again from a different angle, and we can do this by asking: Where did the state come from? Its beginnings first appear in horticultural and pastoral societies, Eli Sagan demonstrating its presence among the Buganda [4] and Evans-Pritchard finding a headless kinship state maintaining order among the Nuer.[5] Unless we are prepared to claim that horticulture and pastoralism have extra-human origins we have to accept that they, and the beginnings of the state with them, developed out of the foraging communities. If these were anarchist or anarchistic it would follow that anarchist(ic) communities had produced the state.

The evidence shows anarchism, and the tendencies it favours, to be sophisticated modes of behaviour which first appeared in any strength no earlier than the end of the 18th Century. Should further research confirm this conclusion it will require changes in the view of anarchism now widely held. On the one hand the movement will no longer be able to expect much support from any natural or inherent inclination towards the practices it advocates. On the other, it will no longer appear as the last remnant of something which in most people has been crushed; it will stand out as a recent innovation with its life still before it. To answer the question with which we began, it will follow that the reason most people do not support anarchism, and show no sign of being about to do so, is that their political and social thinking has not developed to that point. Whether we can reasonably expect it to do so in future is another question, requiring further research; to jump to the conclusion that because some have turned towards anarchism therefore all or most will eventually do so would be to fall into the Mount Everest fallacy. We are not entitled to argue that because some have now climbed the mountain therefore all, or most, will eventually do so.

[1] Service E.R. 1966 The Hunters New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 83.
[2] Barclay H. 1982 People Without Government. London: Kahn & Averill with Cienfuegos Press 49.
[3] Woodcock G. 1977 Anarchism; a history of libertarian ideas and movements. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 40.
[4] Sagan E.1985 At the Dawn of Tyranny; the origins of individualism, political oppression and the state. NY: Alfred A.Knopf.
[5] Evans-Pritchard 1950, The Nuer; … institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press 5, 181.

Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.