George Walford: Perfect Nonsense

Any appearance of “absolute” causes IC‘s pointy ears to prick up; NOTHING is Absolutely True. Our present example of an assertion to the contrary comes from Elisee Reclus: “Fundamentally anarchy is nothing but perfect tolerance, the absolute acknowledgment of the liberty of others.”

An admirable sentiment, one that will go directly to the heart of everybody sympathetic towards anarchist aspirations. If we refuse to accept it we thereby declare ourselves against liberty and tolerance. But what does it mean?

Does it mean that any who may want government should be at liberty to have it? No, because government entails restrictions upon liberty.

Does it mean that any who may want government should be prevented from having it? No, because that would be a restriction upon their liberty.

Does it mean that anarchy becomes possible only when nobody wants government? No, because that means anarchy cannot tolerate people who want government, in which case its tolerance is not perfect.

It is one of those statements that cannot sensibly be either denied or accepted, because they mean nothing.

The trouble comes from the inclusion of “perfect” and “absolute.” Omit those, say that anarchy greatly prefers tolerance, and places extremely high value upon the liberty of others, and it begins to make good sense, although one or two little questions remain.

For example: Which shall receive preference: Tolerance of government by those who would eliminate it, or tolerance of its elimination by those who support it?

But provided they are not bound by prescriptive requirements of perfection or absoluteness the members of an anarchist polity would be free to work out for themselves what powers if any government should have, and what facilities if any should be available to its opponents, just as people, anarchists among them, do today. (Quoted in Bulletin of Anarchist Research No.19).

from Ideological Commentary 54, Winter 1991.