George Walford: The Probable Future of Anarchism

(Abridgment of a talk by George Walford, delivered to the Anarchist Forum on Thursday 13 Nov 86)

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I shan’t be talking about the future of anarchism, only its probable future. When we look at the evidence, and think about it, what can we reasonably expect?

First of all I have to distinguish two approaches to anarchism. One of them is simply to live in an anarchist way yourself, and all anarchists do this to some extent. They try to co-operate instead of competing, they help the people who are getting trodden underfoot, they protests against oppression. Some live in communes, some are pacifists, and all of them criticise the state. These are all things that anarchists are actually doing, this is practical anarchism.

The other approach is to try to abolish the state. What we have at present is really one authoritarian society extending over most of the world, and the other approach to anarchism is to do away with this and set up an anarchist society in its place. So far this has not been done. It remains a theory. This is theoretical anarchism, and this is what I mainly want to talk about. Can we reasonably expect to see this theory put into practice? The answer lies in the hands of all those non-anarchists out there. If they, or most of them, decide to reject the state and accept anarchism we shall get an anarchist society; if they don’t, we won’t. So what can we expect them to do?

Anarchists tend to speak as if everybody is either an anarchist or a non-anarchist and there’s nothing more to be said. This is rather like saying that every animal is either an elephant or a non-elephant. It’s true, as far as it goes, but it hides a lot of differences, and some of them are important. The non-anarchists all accept the state, but in different ways. The right wing believe in it whole-heartedly, they tell you the state is a good thing and they want to strengthen it. The left shows less enthusiasm, saying it is a bad thing that they have to use for now but hope to get rid of in [the] future. The communists talk about the state withering away, and the socialistic part of the Labour movement has similar ideas.

So there are three distinct groups: The right wing, in favour of the state, the left, who say they hope to do away with it eventually, and the anarchists, who believe we ought to do away with the state here and now. But there’s also a fourth group. It consists of all the people who don’t actively support the state but don’t oppose it either. The ones who don’t do anything about the state and don’t want to do anything about it, because they take it completely for granted. I am going to call them the pre-political people.

This group has to be placed beyond the right-wing end of the range, out past conservatism and even to the right of fascism. Because even the conservatives and fascists are aware of a threat to the state, that’s why they want to strengthen it. But the pre-political people haven’t even got even that far. They unthinkingly accept the state as an unchangeable fact of life, in much the same way as they accept gravitation.

So there are four groups: pre-political, right wing, left wing, anarchist. Taken in that order, they form a series. Each of them has less confidence in the state than the one before it.

How does this series come about? Here we have to turn away from politics and think about the way each individual person begins life. First, in the mother’s body. Warm, comfortable, unaware of any dangers, completely helpless and dependent, but feeling completely secure. Not called upon to do anything. Then as a baby, say the first six months of life. Much the same, with warm wrappings replacing the womb. But now being picked up, handled, dressed, taken outdoors, fed and washed. This goes on, much the same, for about the first two years. Babies and young children have things done to them and there’s not much they can do about it. They don’t need to do anything. They just have to submit.

We don’t usually see it in this way, but an infant is completely helpless against the people who care for it. It is picked up and carried around by something twenty times bigger than itself. The loving care that babies and infants receive is completely authoritarian and coercive, and this applies just as much to the babies of anarchist parents. They have no option. If they don’t treat the child in this way, it dies. This period, the first year or two of life, and above all the first months and weeks, this is when the deepest impressions are made. During this time the child has everything provided by its parents and is helpless against them.

The earliest experiences of every child, and its deepest impression, is of complete security linked with submission to unquestionable authority.

Now go back to the people who don’t concern themselves with politics. Don’t ask whether they are doing what we think they ought to be doing, just look at the way they behave and think what it tells us about their mental attitude. They don’t join movements that try to protect the environment, or stop Cruise missiles or police oppression. They don’t go on demos. They don’t march against unemployment. They just live their personal lives as best they can. These are not stupid people. They are sane, sensible and intelligent. Many of them are skilled, some are highly educated and some are wealthy – this is not the working class I’m talking about. But they don’t try to do anything about the state. They submit to it, they accept what it does to them. This is the attitude of young children towards their parents.

The way children are brought up and the only way they can be brought up instills submission into them, and submission is one side of authority. We all grow up with authoritarianism deeply drilled into us. We all enter the world of adult society taking it for granted that there is something, far bigger and stronger than ourselves, that we have to submit to. We all carry over into adult life the attitude we learnt as babies and young children. We start by regarding the state in the same way as young children regard their parents. This is the result of our first and deepest impressions and it is very hard to overcome.

I am not condemning this, not saying it is a childish attitude. It is something we learn as young children, but we learn to walk at the same time, and nobody thinks of walking as childish. What it is, it’s a pre-political attitude.

Many people retain this attitude for their whole lives. But some come to see that this big, strong thing that gives them security is threatened and they start trying to preserve and strengthen it. Those are the right wing. Some of these go on to see that the state, and authoritarian society, do harm as well as good. Those are the left wing. And others go farther still. They decide it would be better to get rid of the state. Those are the anarchists. Anarchists are people who have worked their way through the series. They have thought about the other positions and rejected them.

I know that last bit sounds wrong. Most anarchists have never thought of themselves as belonging to the right or the left; they came straight to anarchism. But in order to be attracted to anarchism you must already be dissatisfied with the other positions, you must have mentally worked your way through them even if you didn’t realise you were doing so.

These four attitudes towards the state are stages in a process of political development. It starts with unquestioning acceptance of the state and moves on to rejection of it, and it has to start again, from the beginning, with each new generation. Of the people who reach each stage, some stay there and others move on to the next. The result is that with each step along the range the numbers get smaller. The pre-political group is the largest. The right wing is smaller, the left is smaller than the right, and the anarchists are the smallest group of all.

I talk about working through other positions. Put briefly like that it sounds easy. It isn’t; it’s damned hard. Not many people get far with it and very few get as far as anarchism.

So, to wind up, where does all this get us? As I said earlier, I’m talking about the probable future of anarchism. I’m not a prophet and I don’t claim to have certain knowledge. But the evidence seems to indicate that anarchism is going to remain the smallest of the four political groups, and that means we are unlikely to get a society which operates wholly or mainly in an anarchist way. But that never has looked very likely. The pursuit of such a society always has been very much theoretical anarchism, unlikely to work out in practice.

There is nothing in what I have said that affects practical anarchism. There can be no argument about whether that works or not because there are people, now, living in anarchist ways. They try to persuade other people but still leave them free to decide for themselves how they want to live. That is practical, positive anarchism, and that seems to be where the future of anarchism lies.

from Ideological Commentary 27, May 1987.