George Walford: Through Religion to Anarchism

Although it would be going too far to say that all anarchists oppose all forms of religion, we can safely say that nearly all of them would like to do away with the authoritarian versions.Are they justified? Certainly this form of religion has done a great deal of harm, but after taking full account of this we have to add, for a complete picture, that it helped in the emergence of the anarchist movement. It did not set out to do this but it did do it. And, in spite of itself, it is still helping people to become anarchists.

Religion has been with us for many thousands of years, and for most of that period many of the sharpest minds have worked on it. It comes in many different varieties, providing more than enough material for a lifetime’s study; nobody can explain it, or account for it, or pronounce any sensible judgement upon it, in one short article. I shall be trying to do just one thing: to show that authoritarian religion helps with the first step towards anarchism.

This word ‘religion’ covers a wide range of doctrines and practices. Zen Buddhism has a good deal in common with some versions of anarchism, and a group calling themselves Christian atheist anarchists also claim to be religious. Without taking up the question whether such activities have a good claim to the title or not, I leave them aside. Here ‘religion’ carries its ordinary everyday meaning, it indicates the orthodox doctrines of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism and the organisations promoting them. These (and perhaps one or two more like them) are the great religions. They provide the main weight of religious activity and each of them (except the last) presents a great god, a tremendous, dominating figure, all-powerful, all-knowing. Creator, Lord, master of earth and heaven, disposing not merely of life and death but of eternal life and death.

Buddhism forms an exception, a religion without a god. We in the West sometimes think of it as quite different from the others, but in fact it’s not all that special. Like them it presents a dominating hero-figure. It calls him Lord, it offers him prayer and sacrifice, it studies his words and worships his holy relics. It regards him as to some extent a saviour; Buddha delayed his own entry into Nirvana in order to spread his message for the sake of others. About the only thing Buddhism doesn’t do is to credit him with having created the world. Although Buddha may not be technically divine he’s a lot more than human, and Buddhism urges us to follow him on the Noble Eightfold Path.

Each of the great religions, Buddhism like the others, offers a figure greater than ourselves. It sets him on one side, the world, the flesh and the devil on the other, and demands that we choose between them.

Having undertaken to show that religion helps with the first step towards anarchism, I am saying that it brings people to believe in personal leaders, something anarchism strongly opposes. But those who come to believe in a personal leader do thereby take the first step towards anarchism. This is so because we all begin life in a condition even farther from anarchism than that. As children and young people we have our interests centred on individual people and personal affairs, taking no interest in wider issues, accepting the society around us in the same unquestioning way as we accept air and gravitation. We live totally merged in the state, submitting to it without question, not even knowing that we are doing so. Thatis the farthest from anarchism that it’s possible for a civilised person to be, and religion tries to shake us out of this condition.
It makes little use of rational argument, for that has little impact on people holding this attitude. It appeals to them in their own terms, offering immense personal advantage eternal blessedness, and often worldly benefits too if they will only love and followthe superhuman leader. Presented as a person, with all the immediacy that implies, this hero-figure yet reaches far beyond the sphere of merely personal affairs. He is engaged in the universal struggle between good and evil (in Buddhism the quest for Nirvana), so that those who follow him find themselves carried into a wider sphere of activity. Religion brings people to take part in affairs that turn out eventually to be social, and it thereby lifts them over the first step on the climb towards anarchism.

Once we join a movement, any movement, once we step into line behind a leader, any leader, our unquestioning submission to the state starts to break down. Totalitarian states gain that title from their attempts to suppress every activity in any way independent of the state, churches among them, and they do this because every movement, even an authoritarian, conservative, government-supporting established Church, forms a distinct power-centre possessing a degree of autonomy; the people who choose to join a Church thereby begin todistinguish themselves from the state. Thomas Beckett was only one of many turbulent priests. Christ told his followers to pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but his teaching had raised the question.Once Christians began to think about what was due to Caesar, instead of just paying it, Caesar no longer enjoyed his former security. Some of the biggest early states, Egypt and China for example, operated as theocracies under a divine ruler, state and church merged together.Yet even here a distinction appears; priests busy collecting taxes cannot at the same time perform religious ceremonies, and this difference of function leads to structural distinction, the church hiving off from the state. Once a distinct church with its own hierarchy has appeared, then pluralism is on the way, to be followed by democracy, and whether the priests like it or not, whether they know it or not, these bring anarchism behind them. In a recent issue of Freedom Donald Rooum has a cartoon that makes the point, though he may not have meant it in quite this way. A preacher smugly condemns the Irish bombers as godless, selfish, anarchic and cowardly. Donald’s hairtrigger heroine, Wildcat, goes through the roof at this, protesting that it’s just the opposite of the truth. The bombers are highly disciplined, prepared to sacrifice themselves. Far from being godless or anarchic they are religious, potential martyrs, the very stuff of which the Church is made. We can say the same of other terrorists. They are not anarchists, but neither are they simply accepting what they find around them; by standing up and fighting it they show the beginnings of independent individuality. When people choose to attack a government, even if they do so in support of another one, and however misguided they may be in their reasons or their methods, they approach closer to anarchism than the great numbers who simply accept the state. Everybody who takes up religion sets out along that same path, even though few of them go beyond verbal dissidence and many never have occasion to realise the distinction between church and state.

We’ll get to anarchism in just a minute. First, look as fascism. Here the Leader comes about as close to deification as civilisation permits and, significantly, Nazism tried to set up rituals and institutions replacing orthodox religion. Move along to conservatism, and the leader-figure, although still prominent, starts to shrink. Where Hitler set himself above the law, Major submits to it; he and his ministers can doubtless find gaps to wriggle through, but they can’t just ride over it. In conservatism impersonal institutions, things like law, tradition, parliament, the monarchy, start to attract the loyalty enjoyed in fascism by the Leader. In the more thoughtful movements, in liberalism, humanism, freethought, socialism, atheism, communism, the leader shrinks movements all differ from religion, but they all carry forward the pattern of behaviour that religion introduced, offering something bigger than ourselves and urging us to join it. As they become more critical of present society the god, the hero, the personal se things occupy the position once held by God and later by the personal leader. Anarchism retains the pattern of behaviour first introduced by religion.

Anarchists will sometimes go along with this far enough to agree that religion has had its uses, while arguing that now it has become a burden we would be better without. They would do away with it, explaining to people in the first place why it’s better to go straight for anarchism. Their efforts in this direction have not met with overwhelming success,and the reason begins to appear when we compare the mass media with anarchist publications. On the one hand, pictures and personalities. Television, almost wholly pictorial and the supreme mass medium, is lso the one which comes closest to presenting actual people as we meet them in daily life, and this holds good especially for the programmes which draw the mass audiences. Coronation Street, EastEnders, Neighbours, all the great popular successes which run and run, present stories if real people, identifiable personalities whom the audience can get to know almost as they know their own families, people living ordinary lives with just enough of the unusual to add dramatic novelty. The mass-circulation newspapers follow suit to the best of their abilities. On one ordinary day recently a count showed the Sun and Today, taken together, averaging approximately two pictures to the page, excluding cartoons and advertisements. Most of these were large, from a quarter-page upwards, and almost without exception they showed named people, personalpeople. As mass entertainment, literature comes a poor second to the pictorial media but here, too, the works winning the big sales almost invariably offer stories of people presented as individual personalities.

Anarchism, too, takes great interest in people, but from a different angle. The individual anarchism speaks of will never burgle you or break a truncheon over your head, but it will never sleep with you or buy you a drink either; it is not a concrete human being at all but a sexless, classless, colourless, jobless, ageless, raceless, featureless, impersonal abstraction, quite as real as the person immediately apparent to the senses, but in a different way; it has the same sort of reality as the average family with two-and-a-bit children. In the ordinary course of daily life anarchists take the normal interest in people as persons; this is fundamental and it does not disappear in the course of development. But when they act or speak as anarchists, when they apply the results of their thinking, when the anarchist movement or anarchist journals concern themselves with particular people, they do so less for the sake of their personal qualities than or their value as symbols or instances, either of oppression and suffering or of resistance to these. Anarchism interests itself less in persons than in ideas, concepts of freedom, hierarchy, anarchy, the state and the like. These abstractions cannot be pictured, and as one consequence of this anarchist publications consist mainly of cold print. On the one hand the mass media, offering pictures and personalities virtually without ideas. On the other anarchism, offering ideas with rarely a personality or a picture. And between them, offering ideas in the form of pictures and personalities, forming a bridge between the other two, stands religion.

Each of the great religions offers personifications of its ideals, unded by minor entities, saints and the like, presenting secondary features. Unifying concrete and abstract, these figures provide a route from the primal interest in personalities towards the sophistication of a commitment to general ideas; in philosophical terms, from the particular to the universal.Opening the way to individual development transcending its own limitations, religion performs a similar function in social affairs. It has been largely the religious people insisting, against all attempts at suppression, on giving voice to their particular doctrines, who have established the rights and liberties that now enable anarchism to function. Buddhist monks have immolated themselves in protest against attempts at suppression; Christian martyrs have suffered at the pillory and the stake for the suppress other faiths, and even in the most advanced countries today this tradition continues in a milder form, each congregation seeking to impose its own regime on the schools. Milton’s Areopagitica with its subtitle A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicens’d Printing is a foundation document here. He is already near the limits of orthodoxy, perhaps beyond them, yet his work still shows, alongside the courage and determination that supported the movement for freedom in religious affairs, also the narrowness of its intentions. He would restrict permissible dissidence to Protestant sects, excluding Roman Catholicism and banning freethought: ‘that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or maners no law can possibly permit. When feeling enthusiasm for his famous declaration, in the same work, that a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit,’ one needs to enquire rather carefully just what he meant by ‘good’ in this connection. Milton was no humanist. He and his fellows would have been horrified to learn that they were ensuring a considerable degree of freedom for anarchism to operate, but their efforts have produced that result. And their success in promoting the freedoms of speech, publication and assembly arose, very largely, from the fact that they were not revolutionaries, outside the pale, but adherents of a respectable religion, people committed not to human welfare, or rationality, or freedom, but to religious beliefs. The freedoms anarchists now use arose as a side-effect of authoritarian religion.

I don’t say a word against atheism, rationalism, reason and argument in their place. We need them among ourselves, and we need them for dealing with people who are anywhere near becoming anarchists. But they offer little help in getting anybody started, in arousing the first awareness that things are wrong in the world and we ought to be doing something about them. For that you need the power, the emotion and the drive that religion brings to bear.

Religion as we have known it for so long goes sharply against anarchist beliefs, using authority rather than reason. It recognises your freedom to accept or reject it, but adds that if you make the wrong choice you will burn in hell. (In Buddhism, that you will remain bound and suffering on the wheel.) Offering a love prepared to destroy your body for the good of your soul, it operates on a level that bypasses the ordinary attachment to comfort and custom, using images and symbols making their appeal to deep levels of the psyche. Even so, it failsat least as often as it succeeds, many remaining absorbed in their own affairs, taken up with pictures and personalities, immersed unquestioningly in the state, throughout their lives. (And of those who do start on and principles, once it has kick-started you into accepting responsibility instead of just taking life and society and rulers for granted, then other movements can usefully approach you, movements more thoughtful than religion, more analytical, more critical. As those movements, one after another, show themselves incapable of doing what they aim at, as liberalism, freethought, socialism, atheism and communism all fail to bring any rapid and radical improvement, eventually anarchism gets its chance. But it is religion, more than anything else, that gets these changes started.

A great many anarchists believe that people have a natural tendency towards anarchy but get turned away from it, religion being one of the forces responsible. This has no more validity than the equivalent belief of conservatives, fascists, communists and in fact the members of every political movement, that people generally would support them if only some evil influence bosses, extremists, agitators, Jews or immigrants did not interfere. For people to live togetherwithout external government they need a high level of self-control, and we are not born with this. It has to be learnt, and religion, ordinary, orthodox, conventional, authoritarian religion, is the most effective method yet found for getting that learning process started.

Let me wind up with two quotations from one of the more prominent religious authorities of recent times. In his novel . When, then, men for the first time look upon the world of politics or religion… they have no consistency in their argument; that is, they argue one way to-day, and not exactly the other way to-morrow, but indirectly the other way, at random. Their lines of argument diverge; nothing comes to a point; there is no one centre in which their mind sits, on which their judgement of men and things proceeds. This is the state of many men all through life; and ruled by others, or are pledged to a course. Else they are at the mercy of the winds and the waves; and, without being Radical, Whig, Tory or Conservative, High Church or Low Church, they do Whig acts, Tory acts, Catholic acts, and heretical acts, as a likeable, easy-going young student of divinity, begins to experience the effect upon his thinking of a serious commitment to religion:

Contradictions could not both be real; when an affirmative was true, a negative was false. All doctrines could not be equally sound; there was a right and a wrong. The theory of dogmatic truth, as opposed to latitudinarianism (he did not know their names or their history, or suspect what was going on within him) had … gradually rise in his mind.

That is how religion works on people who have been content to get by as best they can. It gets them started on facing the big issues and making responsible decisions. People who think in the way Newman describes, accepting doctrine and dogma, are not anarchists, but such thinking forms a stage in the progression towards anarchism, for only to the extent that people formulate their ideas clearly, and hold them firmly, can they appreciate the force of an attack upon them.

Let us hope that Newman’s young hero went on to become an anarchist.

E. Conze: Buddhism, its Essence and Development Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1957, page 43
J.H. Newman: Loss and Gain Oxford: OUP, 1986 (1864) pages 15-16 and 27

from The Raven: Anarchist Quarterly 25 7/1