George Walford: The Source of Anarchism

This article is reprinted from Raven, the anarchist quarterly, Volume 2, No. 1, June 1988. [1] It has been slightly revised, clarifying the argument.

How do people come to be anarchists? At first sight this seems to be an easy one to answer. There may be a few original minds who work it out for themselves, but nearly all newcomers to the movement get their ideas from other anarchists, sometimes in conversation, sometimes by reading. My own experience is probably fairly typical. I was about 18, reading H. G. Wells and Winwood Reade and Bernard Shaw. Although feeling very advanced, I hadn’t got past the mildest sort of reformist socialism. Then I happened to meet an anarchist, and within a couple of hours I had been converted. It seems obvious that I became an anarchist because of that chance meeting. [2]

But the man I met was an enthusiast for spreading the ideas; over the years he must have tried with scores, probably hundreds of people, but he succeeded only with me and two or three others. Evidently, talking with him was not sufficient, by itself, to produce an anarchist. There must have been something else, something that predisposed most to reject what he said and a few to accept it.

Similarly with other anarchists and other particular reasons for taking up the position. We say this or that made me or him or her an anarchist, but when we look closer we find that this same whatever-it-was happened to a lot of other people who did not cross over. So, again, there must have been something else at work, some source of anarchism apart from individual experience. Something, in fact, that decides what effect individual experience will produce.

Whatever this may be, it has been producing substantially the same effect since anarchism started. You can date the beginnings of the movement from Bakunin, or Proudhon, or Godwin, or the Diggers, or farther back still; but, wherever you choose to start, it remains true that since that time anarchism has been a minority movement. Most people don’t accept anarchism, and it is mainly the balance of numbers that decides whether we do or do not have an anarchist society. Not whether Thomas, Richard or Henry does or does not become an anarchist, but whether most people do or don’t. We have to explain two things: why this movement exists as all, and why it remains in the minority.

In order to reach an answer we need to look at the people who accept or support things as they are. Anarchists tend to lump these all in together, and one can see the reason; compared with the difference between those who oppose the State and those who don’t other distinctions tend to be negligible. I am not saying that the big division is unreal, or unimportant, but it’s a bit like dividing all animals into elephants and non-elephants; it hides a lot of useful information. As soon as you look at all carefully at the non-anarchists you find they fall into two groups which are distinguished by having different attitudes towards government.

There are the people in favour of it. These include not just the ones who want to do the governing, but also those who believe that they need to have a government over them – all the people who say things like this:

An officer is always right, even when he’s wrong.

Yet not my will but Thine be done.

And, perhaps the commonest of them all:

But you have to have somebody to tell people what to do.

I will call this the government group. We just have to remember that it includes not only the rulers and would-be rulers, but also all those who believe they ought to be ruled.

Next, the other group of non-anarchists. This consists of the people who are not opposed to government but don’t particularly support it either; the people with their attention focused on their personal and family affairs, on their jobs, children, love-life, sports and entertainments. They take government for granted, accepting it as a fact of life like gravitation or the weather. They don’t think about the way things might be, they just manage as best they can in the circumstances in which they find themselves. They don’t want to be bothered with social affairs, and all they ask of government is that it should not interfere with them too much. Sometimes a government fails to meet this condition, and that is when the revolutions burst out. But as soon as that government has been got rid of, and a new one appears that seems able to manage its affairs better, these people happily go back to their private concerns.

The English Revolution was followed by Cromwell, the French by Napoleon, the Russian by Stalin, the Chinese by Mao, the Cuban by Castro. After every revolution, the rulers return. This happens because the people in this group want to live their private lives without looking outside them, and they find it easier to do that while there is a government running the society. Occasionally overthrowing a government that has made a mess of things too bad to be borne (and thereby showing they possess the power to do this), they accept any rulers who can make anything like a tolerable showing rather than take on the responsibility of managing their own society for themselves.

In social affairs the overriding tendency of this group is to take the less troublesome route, to adapt themselves to circumstances, and there’s a name for that sort of behaviour: expedience. We all act by expedience at times; those who belong to the group of which I am now speaking distinguish themselves by doing so consistently, in social and political affairs as well as in their personal lives. I shall call this the Expedient group.

So we have three political groups, with everybody belonging to one or another of them. They don’t correspond with class divisions. Each of them includes rich and poor, educated and uneducated, workers and capitalists, and if you want to talk about a middle class then each group includes members of that, too. Each of them is marked by a number of distinguishing features, but here I shall speak only of their respective attitudes towards government. The anarchists oppose it; the government group supports it; the expedient group doesn’t care much either way, but usually finds it easier to submit than to resist. The divisions between the groups are not sharp, but this does not make them unreal; there is no sharp division between male and female, but there is a difference, and one that matters.

These are political groups, and whenever you start talking about a political group you need to think about its size, because that mainly decides how much influence it will have. I haven’t counted the number of people in each of these three groups, I don’t know of anybody who has, and I don’t think it can be done. But we don’t need to know the exact numbers, only their relative sizes. There can hardly be much doubt that anarchism is the smallest of the three; it is the sizes of the other two we have to think about, and there are several ways of getting at these.

First, go into any big newsagent and look at the books and journals on the shelves. Masses of them on fantasy, fiction, families and homes, entertainment, do-it-yourself, and sex. A much smaller number on politics and government, even if you include the more serious newspapers.

Next, look at the figures for general elections. Voters fall into two categories, the first comprising those who vote the same way, election after election. These are thinking seriously about politics, concerned to find the right answers. They show themselves to belong to the government group.

The other voters do not vote consistently for any party, but this way in one election, another way at the next, as they think will best serve their interest at the time. These people are voting expediently, they belong to our Expedient group, and there are so many that when most of them happen to vote the same way this produces “swings” and “landslides” that swamp the regular party-supporters.

But that does not yet give the full size of the Expedient group. At each general election this century there have been around 20 to 26 per cent of non-voters; in 1987 the figure was 24.6 per cent. Some few of these will have been anarchists, or others who thought about it and made a conscious decision not to vote, but nearly all were people who did not care enough to go to the polling-booth. These also belong to the Expedient group, and when they are put together with the floating voters, it becomes evident that this is the largest group of the three.

Now the next question: How did these groups come about? In order to answer that, we have to go back before the beginnings of history, right back to the time when human beings first appeared. Just when that was depends on what you want to accept as human. If you limit humanity to homo sapiens it was something over 40,000 years ago. That may seem long enough, but if you prefer to take upright posture as the mark of humanity that makes it longer still; it takes you back through Neanderthal, Pekinesis and so on, back through all the varieties that preceded sapiens sapiens, to the first appearance of homo erects. It dates the beginnings of the human race about 3 or 4 million years ago.

Whichever date be chosen, it remains true that at the time, and for many thousands of years afterwards, people did not grow their own food; they lived by collecting what grew naturally, and they are known as “hunter-gatherers.” That’s a clumsy term and it’s not accurate, either. With a few exceptions, like the Eskimo, most of these people relied on the roots, nuts and so on gathered by the women rather than on the game hunted by the men. “Gatherer-hunters” would be more accurate. But that too, is awkward, so I’m going to use another term, one the anthropologists accept although they don’t often use it. I shall call these early people foragers.

In one sense the foragers were primitive; they lived at the beginning. But if we feel inclined to look down on them we have to remind ourselves that they founded the first human communities, began the use of fire, used tools in a way the animals do not, and invented language. These things are perhaps the greatest achievements of humanity; we have to treat these people with respect. Hobbes made his sour remarks about their life being nasty and brutal before much was known about them.

The view of the Marxists – that foragers were primitive communists – was mainly based on the ideas of Lewis H. Morgan and put forward in Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). It receives little support from more recent work. One modern anthropologist, Elman R. Service, says in The Hunters (1966) that it is a superficial view; when you look deeper you find the foraging bands were not communistic. Another, Grahame Clark, says in Mesolithic Prelude (1980) that it is an illusion produced by Victorian pseudo-anthropology.

Our interest lies in the attitude of the foragers towards government, and the most informative thing I can say about this is that they didn’t have one. They didn’t have any government, and they didn’t have any definite attitude towards government.

Many anthropologists have lived with foraging peoples. Each of them studies one tribe or people, so to get an authoritative view of foragers generally we have to go to books which summarise the literature, and the best summary I know of the more recent work is Service’s book The Hunters. He says that these communities operate by influence rather than authority and, quite explicitly: “there is no government and no law”; “there is no leader or headman in the sense usually associated with the word ‘chief'”; “bossiness” is not tolerated and humility is valued.

The absense of government does not mean that the foragers are defenceless. They suffer from some of the same troubles as we do; they get bullies, delinquents, thieves and habitual liars, and usually find that sanctions applied by the whole community – such as gossip, ridicule and withdrawal – are enough to deal with them. As a last resort, anybody who persists in doing harm that simply cannot be tolerated is likely to be killed, usually by close relatives because that is less likely to start a feud.

Foragers do sometimes accept leaders and organisers, but these are not rulers. Here is Service again:

[The leader] has a very tenuous position … He might serve as adviser, director and perhaps initiator on specific military actions and/or of occasional and particular economic activities beyond the day-to-day hunting and snaring routine. Also, by virtues of his prestige … he might act as the prime opinion-giver in social matters within the band. His “authority” lay in putting his stamp of approval upon decisions of viewpoints arrived at by the group as a whole … The wise chief or leader had his finger upon the pulse of individual and group opinions. He had to woo others to his way of thinking or, that failing, to alter his course accordingly.

They often had one person leading them in particular undertakings. Some of the Plains Indian tribes would appoint a rabbit-boss when they went after rabbits, and we’ve all heard of their war-chiefs. But these leaders did not have any coercive force to use and they didn’t have any real authority; they depended on personal influence and the willingness of people to follow them. If any person or family chose to go off on their own, there was nothing much the leader could do about it, and as soon as the hunt or the fishing was over the leader’s job was finished. Some of the Australian Aborigines had what is sometimes called a council of elders, but these did not form a government in the sense that we know that institution; they were more like respected grandfathers. The anthropologists are definite that the foragers did not have institutionalised government, a police force or an army. In short, they had no State.

This leads a lot of people to regard them as anarchists, but that view carries consequences its supporters seem not to have considered. The foraging period was succeeded by the almost world-wide spread of the State, and unless we are going to say this was sent by God, or brought by those little green men from Mars or Venus or wherever, we have to accept that it developed out of the foraging communities. If the foragers were anarchists, it follows that anarchism produced the State.

We need to take account of the difference between not having something and being opposed to having it. Whatever anarchists may become in the future, at present they are not people who live without the State. They oppose the State, and the foragers didn’t do that. So long as government hadn’t been invented, they got along fine without it; but when it appeared, nearly all of them accepted it, and altered their behaviour to fit this new circumstance. They did not act like members of our government group (who believe they need the State for the good life) but not like anarchists either; they acted expediently.

The biggest of our three groups, the Expedient one, behaves towards government in the same way as the foragers did. From the beginnings of humanity, perhaps for millions of years, everybody acted in this way, and in our computerised, automated, space-travelling, post-industrial society, with pollution, security services and hydrogen bombs, the Expedient group is still the biggest of the three.

Now we move on to the other non-anarchists, the government group. This appeared when government, farming and herding came in, more or less together, about 10,000 years ago. A lot of other things also began about that time: work, institutionalised religion and education for example. Everything, in fact, that goes to make up or support the State. Once government appeared it spread over almost the whole of the planet, but in doing so it did not eliminate expedience; this is still with us today as the most common attitude, influencing the widest range of behaviour. The change was not from expedience to government, but from a community living by expedience alone to a society that displayed both government and Expedience. Finally, very much later, came our third group, the anarchists.

For the student of anarchism the history of society falls into three main periods, but these are not Expedience, government and anarchism. They are: first, Expedience; second, Expedience with government; third, Expedience with government and anarchism. Each attitude continues to exist as the next one appears; we now have all three of them, and there is no indication that the earlier ones are going to vanish or even lose much of their influence. These successive types of society have not been imposed from without; people formed the expedient communities for themselves, and out of these all later society has developed. Each novelty has emerged from the previous condition without extraneous addition, and the name for that is evolution. Society has evolved.

I started by asking why people become anarchists. It looked at first as though it could be traced to something in the personal experience of each one, but we found that, although personal experience was always involved, it could not provide a sufficient explanation. There had to be something else, something that predisposed some people to become anarchists and left the majority unaffected. We can now say that something is the evolution of society. This is what has produced anarchism and this is also what produces a majority of non-anarchists.

But we can go farther than that. Society does not float in a vacuum; it is itself the outcome of an evolutionary process, one that begins with the inorganic world and moves through the organic to the human. At least, that is how it’s usually put, but that is a partial, one-sided inadequate account. What we have now is not just humanity, it is humanity and the organic world and the inorganic world. Each order of existence continues to exist after the next one has appeared, and the main levels of development have been: first, inorganic; second, inorganic with organic; third, inorganic with organic and human.

Human beings form societies, and social (sometimes called exogenetic) evolution moves so much faster that by comparison with it biological evolution seems to stop. In their biology human beings today are practically the same as the first farmers; it is their society that has developed.

Now we can put together the main stages of the total evolutionary process: first, the inorganic; second, the inorganic with the organic; third, the inorganic with the organic and the first human communities, the Expedients; fourth, the inorganic with the organic and the expedient and government; fifth, the inorganic with the organic and the Expedient and government and anarchism. And that, of course, is where we are today. When we spell it out in full, the source of anarchism is the universal process of evolution.

All the way through this universal process, each step to a new level of organisation has been accompanied by a reduction in the number of units. There are fewer atoms than fundamental particles, fewer cells than atoms, fewer multi-cellular creatures than cells, fewer human beings than multi-cellular creatures, fewer supporters of government than expedient people, and fewer anarchists than supporters of government.

This does not, of course, prove that anarchists will remain in the minority; some new factor may appear that changes the whole set-up. But although 40,000 years of experience, or even 4 million years, does not prove anything about the future, we cannot sensibly disregard them. In the absence of equally strong evidence to the contrary, we do have to accept the past as indicating the probable future. We have no better guide. If anybody wants to believe that future development will follow a different course from that of the past, that’s their privilege; but if they want to put their belief forward as a reasonable one then I suggest the onus is upon them to provide evidence to support it.

[1] The Raven can be obtained from Freedom Bookshop, [address].
[2] The man I met was a member of the anarcho-socialist group calling themselves (confusingly) The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Many anarchists do not recognise these people as part of the movement because they propose to work through Parliament, but they would use Parliament only to get rid of it. If they were ever to get the majority they say they need, they would abolish capitalism and the State, and Parliament with them, establishing what they call socialism (which is what other anarchists call anarchism) without any transition period: “There will be no socialist state. The government over people will give way to the democratically organised administration of things.” (Socialist Standard, official journal of the SPGB, October 1984).

from Ideological Commentary 39, May 1989.