The Anarchism of Alex Comfort

JUST AFTER THE WAR, TWO YOUNG WRITERS on either side of the Atlantic published collections of their wartime essays. Their books had a similar tone and character, both were of social as well as literary criticism, and they even had similar titles: Paul Goodman's was called Art and Social Nature, Alex Comfort's was called Art and Social Responsibility. Goodman's was put together when "I was having a disagreement with the Selective Service and was set to go to jail, though this was entirely against both my prudent principles and my wishes … my philosophical and political position was Dodging." Comfort's was written when, according to his publisher, he had become known as "an aggressive anti-militarist, having headed the agitation against indiscriminate bombing and himself refusing military service … "From now on," he declared, "the deserter is every man's friend."

Neither book attracted much attention when published, but an interesting thing has happened since: in the last few years, both authors have frequently had the suggestion put to them that these long out-of-print essays from obscure publishers and from a period of which little of permanent value awaits resurrection should be reprinted. It is as though, after a new generation had grown up, people suddenly found them relevant, suddenly found that they "speak to our condition." Nor was it for the sake of their criticism of literature and the arts that the requests for a reprint came, it was for those more "ephemeral" essays which took the form of political manifestoes: in Goodman's case for

Frank Benier's drawing is reproduced by courtesy of the artist and the Daily Herald.

the five essays which formed the part of his book called The May Pamphlet, and in Comfort's for the essays Art and Social Responsibility and The End of a War (October 1944), both of which had originally appeared in George Woodcock's magazine Now.

Goodman's May Pamphlet has been reprinted, together with some recent essays, in a paperback Drawing the Line (New York: Random House 1962); Comfort's essays have not, partly because he is conscious of having said the same things again since, and partly because his own programme of work is so full that he hasn't time to make those revisions which after a lapse of almost twenty years, he feels are necessary. (Salient passages have, however, been plentifully scattered about ANARCHY over the last two-and-a-half years). Young friends of Goodman assure him that his May Pamphlet makes more sense today than when he wrote it, and Nicolas Walter (in ANARCHY 14) referring to Comfort as "the true voice of nuclear disarmament, much more than that of Bertrand Russell or anyone else" remarks that "At the end of the last war he wrote its obituary and drew its moral. What he said is as valid and valuable today as it was then, when he was a very young man who kept his head when all around were losing theirs, and I can think of nothing better to say to very young people who are trying to do the same thing eighteen years later."

Comfort and Goodman are characters of a very different kind, but their preoccupations are similar. Both bridge the so-called two cultures, both are novelists and poets, while Goodman is a teacher turned psychotherapist and Comfort is a physician turned biologist. Each has evolved a distinctive anarchism of his own in which resistance to war and war preparation is combined with the search for alternatives to authoritarian and coercive social institutions. This is the reason why they have become relevant for a generation which, after the smug nineteen-fifties, became for the first time involved in public affairs through the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and found that the campaign against the bomb was inevitably a campaign against the state, and then that a campaign against the state became a campaign for different kinds of social and economic institutions based on participation and co-operation rather than coercion and competition. The kind of war resistance which these two anarchists called for years ago, and have not ceased to advocate since, is precisely the kind which has continually seemed about to grow from the radical wing of the campaign against the bomb. The philosophy which Comfort set out in October 1944, is precisely that of the Committee of 100.

Two writers and their programmes

Both these writers have at one time or another felt impelled to set out some form of programme, and it is interesting to compare them. Goodman prefaces his (in The May Pamphlet) with three preconditions:
(a) It is essential that our programme can, with courage and mutual encouragement and mutual aid, be put into effect by our own effort, to a degree at once and progressively more and more, without recourse to distant party or union decisions. (b) The groups must be small, because mutual aid is our common human nature mainly with respect to those with whom we deal face to face. (c) Our action must be aimed not, as utopians, at a future estab1ishment; but (as millenarians, so to speak) at fraternal arrangements today, progressively incorporating more and more of the social functions into our free society.

His programme, condensed rather crudely, is as follows:
1. Satisfactory work, industrial decentralisation, workers' control.
2. Standard of living to be based on subsistence and humane well-being instead of exploitative institutions and coercive advertising.
3. Provide opportunity for "the sexual gratification of adolescents. This is essential in order to prevent the pattern of coercion and authority from re-emerging no matter what the political change has been".
4. In small groups we must exercise direct initiative in community problems of personal concern to ourselves (housing, community plan, schooling, etc.). The constructive decisions of intimate concern to us cannot be delegated to representative government and bureaucracy.
5. Group psychotherapy so that "living in the midst of an alienated way of life … we no longer regard as guilty or conspiratorial such illegal acts as spring from common human nature … On the other hand, we must see that many acts commonly regarded as legal and even meritorious are treason against our natural society, if they involve us in situations where we cease to have personal responsibility and concern for the consequences."
6. "We must progressively abstain from whatever is connected with the war … If we are to have peace, it is necessary to wage the peace. Otherwise, when their war comes, we must also hold ourselves responsible for it."

Comfort's programme (in Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State) is followed by the observation that

Direct pressure through the mechanism of parliamentary parties does not figure in this list of aims. There are those who will feel that such an omission is perverse. On the other hand, it is doubtful, on the grounds which have been set out in this book, whether progress through the institutional pattern is worth attempting, and whether a more revolutionary approach is not valuable in itself, as a means of bring home our point.
His programme, again condensed, is as follows:
1. Measures to increase public awareness of the state of society and of the results of research into human social psychology. The focus here is educational, through the explanation of the mechanics of specific problems such as war or social neurosis …
2. Fundamental experiments in communal living and control of resources. These have a demonstration value out of all proportion to their size. They are often to the criticism that they depend on the society which they are attacking, but it is hard to see why they should not do so. A widespread growth of spontaneous experiment of this kind is likely to prove a serious competitor to the less satisfactory institutional apparatus, and influence it as much as experimental rehabilitation has influenced penology.
3. Specific pressure, towards controlled break-up of large city aggregates, increased workers' control in industry, with decentralisation of large units.

4. Concentrated propaganda to introduce sociality into the place where character-formation takes places, the family and the school. The value of this type of instruction has been proved by the striking change in ideas of parental and educational discipline during the last twenty years.

5. Individual psychiatry … The task of adjustment is not the reaction of centralised morale and of acquiescence, but the building of a morale based on negative resistance to bad institutions and positive determination to experiment in social living so that they can be superseded. This is the most specifically revolutionary part of our work. It may involve not only individual therapy but such measures of propaganda as we can undertake through writing, speaking and living. It may involve specifically revolutionary activity, such as the encouragement of direct resistance to delinquent authority and the withdrawal of scientific support from projects involving secrecy, the suppression of information, and the abuse of technology for war purposes.
The tone as well as the content of these two programmes are similar, and they are reflected very closely in the approach to anarchism of contributors to this journal, and in the topics discussed by the newest generation of anarchists. One of the new student groups for instance defines its field thus: "We are interested in workers' control of industry, child-centred education, the abolition of the punitive element in justice, the increased decentralisation of institutions, co-operation not competition, the maximum self-determination of individuals. Such preoccupations allow plenty of scope for action; and when the opportunity arises, we will act."

Against the bomb

Like Goodman, whose works were discussed in ANARCHY 11 and 24, Comfort is a man whose ideas flow from one field of his work to another. He says of himself, "I build up a fund of ideas as a result of my various activities and then use them in whichever sphere is most appropriate. For instance, I was studying the colours of horses' coats in the Stud Book from a genetic point of view, as part of my research into ageing. Then I found myself using the different colours of women's hair as a theme in a poem." Another by-product of the same research was a radio talk on the changing fashions in the names given to horses, which provided him with the unlikeliest of pretexts to bring in the topic of nuclear disarmament: Comfort never lets these opportunities slip, whether it is a public discussion of Britain's morals or an article in the press on earlier maturity. Having been concerned with anti-war propaganda all his adult life, he has never ceased to seek out new ways of getting a hearing. In 1950 he wrote an official-looking leaflet (published by the PPU) called Civil Defence — What you should do now, which was the subject of angry questions in the House of Commons because of what the Home Secretary called its "subversive" character. In 1958, at the meeting which launched the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, he declared:

Much has been said about a summit conference. Sanity is always hardest to restore at the summit — the air there is rarified. It seems to affect the brain. We can reassert it at the base. The people must take over.
I do not see the parties giving an answer to the hundreds of people of all persuasions who are asking what they individually can do to reassert the rule of sanity. That is the foundation of the campaign we are launching tonight; to make every individual reassume the normal responsibility for opposing insanity. The issue is one for direct action.

He was one of those original members of the Committee of 100 who were sentenced to a month's imprisonment for organising the Trafalgar Square sit-down, his voice has frequently been heard on the pirate radio station Voice of Nuclear Disarmament, he was arrested for sticking up anti-bomb posters, and is the author of a collection of anti-bomb songs called Are You Sitting Comfortably? For him the important thing about the campaign is that it has made people vocal, has made them ask questions, and has brought them out into the street. "The people learn slowly, and learn incompletely" he wrote nineteen years ago, "They remain somnambulists, but the pressure of the times moves them." And in that remarkable wartime manifesto he concluded "When enough people respond to the invitation to die, not with a salute but a smack in the mouth, and the mention of war emptied the factories and fills the streets, we may be able to talk about freedom."

Sex without guilt

The other subject on which Comfort's views have gained a certain notoriety, is of course, the ever-interesting topic of sexual relations, less through his books (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) than as a result of his recent Sunday night television discussion. Here he summed up his code on sexual behaviour in the words of Bertrand Russell's definition of the good life: that it should be inspired by love and directed by intelligence, and the two aspects to which he applied this approach were the sexual lives of adolescents, and monogamy. The fact that sex is still regarded as "a problem" is the major negative achievement of Christianity, he suggested. "We might as well make up our minds that chastity is no more a virtue than malnutrition." Now everybody knows that teenage lovemaking does not stop short of copulation, but because of the myth of "chastity", nobody inculcates the simple and obvious moral and technical rules of sexual behaviour. His moral injunctions — which have become quite well-known thanks to the publicity which followed this TV programme — are "Thou shalt not exploit another person's feelings" and "Thou shalt under no circumstances, cause the birth of an unwanted child". The technical requirement is of course that "sex education" should include instruction to the young on the intelligent and correct use of foolproof contraceptives.

The reference to "commandments" led Maurice Carstairs to question why, as an anarchist, Comfort was prescribing rules, to which he replied that a philosophy of freedom demanded higher standards of personal responsibility than a belief in authority. The lack of ordinary prudence and chivalry which could often be observed in adolescent sexual behaviour today was precisely the result of prescribing the code of chastity which did not make sense, instead of principles which are "immediately intelligible and acceptable to any sensible youngster."
But the observation which won him the Daily Mirror headline "TV Doctor's Amazing Sex Talk" was his definition of a chivalrous boy as one who takes contraceptives with him when he goes to meet his girl friend.
He was equally provocative when he came to talk of adult sexual relationships. A good many marriages and a good many personalities, he suggested, require an "adulterous" prop to keep them on their feet. The extended life span in modern Western society means that "till death do us part" is, as he put it, "a hell of a long time", and the concept of romantic love places a very heavy strain on marriage. (He refers of course to the relationship rather than the legal institution).

In choosing a partner we try both to retain the relationships we have enjoyed in childhood, and to recoup ourselves for fantasies which have been denied us. Mate-selection accordingly becomes for many an attempt to cast a particular part in a fantasy production of their own, and since both parties have the same intention but rarely quite the same fantasies, the result may well be a duel of rival producers. There are men, as Stanley Spencer said of himself, who need two complementary wives and women who need two complementary husbands, or at least two complementary love-objects. If we insist first that this is immoral or 'unfaithful', and second that should it occur there is an obligation to each love-object to insist on exclusive rights, we merely add unnecessary difficulties to a problem which might have presented none, or at least presented fewer, if anyone were permitted to solve it in their own way.

The anarchist reader, who presumably takes all this for granted, will notice in comparing Barbarism and Sexual Freedom, or Sexual Behaviour in Society, with Comfort's most recent utterances on sex, that his opinions have apparently become more radical. When I put this to him, he replied that it was not so much his opinions that had changed — although the arrival of the contraceptive pill had altered the situation — as his manner of expressing them. "In offering advice to people, especially the young, you incur a responsibility, which considering the weird use that people do make of your advice, is pretty heavy." The young are making their own sexual revolution whether their elders like it or not, and Comfort's point is that they should be supported and armed, as well as being given some awareness of the emotional reactions of the opposite sex.
Comfort notes in his book Darwin and the Naked Lady that "the actual content of sexual behaviour probably changes much less between cultures than the individual's capacity to enjoy it without guilt", and he believes that Western society is beginning to get away from the "operatic" view of sex. He argues in the introduction to his forthcoming translation of The Koka Shastra and other mediaeval Indian writing on love that the function of erotic literature is not vicarious stimulation but reassurance:

The gain which modern English readers are likely to get from Indian erotic literature is precisely of this kind … what is profitable to them — and us — in spite of the distance of time and culture which separates us from Sanskrit literature, is the contrast of attitudes — acceptance and pleasure where we have for generations been taught to look for danger and guilt.

Science and anarchism

What links Comfort's attitude to war resistance and his attitude to sexual freedom is the notion of personal and social responsibility. This, and his confidence in scientific method are at the root of his anarchism, which is based on a few quite simple propositions which have recurred frequently, with variations, in his work over the last twenty years, in his fiction and poetry as much as in his "sociological" writings. The first (as set out in his series of broadcast talks The Pattern of the Future) is that Western society has "grown out of and beyond" the Christian tradition, into a new tradition of thought which demands "evidence to support statements, evidence of their conformity to the same tests of reality which we employ in scientific study or in everyday life", the tradition, that is, of scientific humanism. "Humanism does not formulate ten commandments. It formulates one only. Man's survival depends on the outcome of his struggle with a morally neutral universe, and on the maintenance of responsibility between men. Do nothing which increases the difficulties which any individual has to face, and leave nothing undone which diminishes them." Where the orthodox morality has sanction in scientific fact, he once wrote in FREEDOM, "I will support it; where it has not, a new morality must be devised which has."
This is the position which leads him to anarchism: "I write as an anarchist, that is, as one who rejects the conception of power in society as a force which is both anti-social and unsound in terms of general biological principle. If I have any metaphysical and ethical rule on which to base my ideas, it is that of human solidarity and mutual aid against a hostile environment …"
Comfort claims that his anarchism is founded in his scientific approach, and consequently it is not surprising that those anarchist thinkers of the past whom he cites with approval are Godwin, who was rooted in the eighteenth century spirit of rational enquiry (and who is described in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences as "the first political psychologist") and Kropotkin, who consciously sought to give anarchism a scientific basis (and who Comfort calls "the founder of modern social ecology"). Only Comfort could introduce a long quotation from Malatesta with the words, "Malatesta, though not a social psychologist, gives a statement of the anarchist case which is possible more balanced than any since Godwin." (Our italics).
Modern sociology, he says, in Authority and Delinquency, "would seem to uphold the libertarian-anarchist rather than the totalitarian-

institutional conception of social change, though it does so with marked reservations". And he continues

If the word 'ANARCHISM', as a name for the attempt to effect changes away from the centralized and institutional towards the social and 'life-oriented' society, carries irrational implications, or suggests a pre-conceived ideology either of man or of society, we may hesitate to accept it. No branch of science can afford to ally itself with revolutionary fantasy, with emotionally determined ideas of human conduct, or with psychopathic attitudes. On the other hand suggested alternatives — 'biotechnic civilisation' (Mumford), 'para-primitive society' (G. R. Taylor) — have little advantage beyond their novelty, and acknowledge none of the debts which we owe to pioneers. 'Free society' is equally undesirable for its importation of an emotive and undefinable idea of freedom.
If therefore the intervention of sociology in modern affairs tend to propagate a form of anarchism, it is an anarchism based on observational research, which has little in common with the older revolutionary theory besides its objectives. It rests upon standards of scientific assessment to which the propagandist and actionist elements in nineteenth-century revolutionary thought are highly inimical. It is also experimental and tentative rather than dogmatic and Messianic. As a theory of revolution it recognises the revolutionary process as one to which no further limit can be imposed — revolution of this kind is not a single act of redress or vengeance followed by a golden age, but a continual human activity whose objectives recede as it progresses.

Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, which is subtitled 'A criminological approach to the problem of power" is undoubtedly Comfort's most important contribution to anarchist thought. Its theme is not merely that power corrupts but that corrupt men seek power and he seeks to provide evidence for the view that democratic, as well as totalitarian societies tend to select for executive and legislative office individuals who are potentially or actually anti-social delinquents. Its author describes it as a text-book. If it is, it must be the only text-book to contain the injunction that "Obedience in modern societies is more often a hideous vice than a Christian virtue". This book's insistence on a "sociological" anarchism is reiterated in Comfort's most recent book Sex in Society.

The present age is an age, in England, of very depressed revolutionaries. Revolution in its nineteenth-century significance, a mass movement of the people against a particular institutional system and in support of another, seems farther off than ever it has been. The depression of those who wish to revert to this pattern of political reform is fully justified … That the application of sociology to life will involve 'revolutionary' action by the mass of individuals, which may prove at least as strenuous and exacting as that envisaged by the older revolutionaries, should not be allowed to obscure the difference between the new and the old …
Writers on political revolution tend to distinguish between two types of attitude, the revolutionary and the reformist, by which they mean the approach to a problem based upon the acceptance of radical change, and the approach based on the gradual pushing and pulling of existing institutions into the desired form. A rather similar division exists in constructive sociology. In educating the society in which we live, we have to distinguish between objectives and palliatives. I have said that an approach to sexual adequacy is only one facet of the approach to social 'adequacy, and that social change of the type which recent work appears to favour must involve positive solutions of the problem of power in society. This is both apolitical and a sociological objective, and we are fully justified in reasserting that attempts to secure such reform through the existing mechanisms of government are likely to be a waste of time, and to incur the same failure as that of the ideals of the French and the Russian revolutionaries. The only intelligible basis for social change lies in the modification of individual attitudes and the encouragement of resistance to irrational authorities.

Anarchists as educators

But where do we as anarchists fit into all this? What does he recommend us to do? Comfort's answer appears in the passage from his anarchist summer school lecture which Ian Stuart quoted in his article Anarchism and Crime in ANARCHY 32, "Personally I would like to see more of us, those who can, take training in social sciences or engaging in research in this field. I do not want to turn anarchism into a sociological Fabian Society, from which non-scientists are excluded. I want to see something done which has not been done before — a concerted, unbiassed and properly documented attempt to distribute accurate teaching of the results of modern child psychiatry, social psychology and political psychology to the general public on the same scale as we have in the past tried to disseminate revolutionary propaganda."
Some anarchists took this advice seriously — a by-product of the result can be seen in some of the authoritative material which has been published in this journal, but in fact he is asking the anarchists to be what they have always been: educators as well as agitators. To take a phrase of Comfort's out of context, "Godwin tried to do precisely this in Caleb Williams and St. Leon. If he did not make anarchism popular at least he inspired Shelley." Kropotkin's most penetrating observations on crime and punishment, using the latest material available from the emerging sciences of criminology and psychology, were made to an audience of working-men in Paris. It was the role of the anarchist element among the Russian narodniks of the last century, of the obreros conscientes of Spanish rural anarchism reading to their illiterate fellow-villagers, or the anarchist 'penny teacher' remembered by Arturo Barea in Madrid, or the Sicilian anarchist prisoner mentioned by Dolci who opened the eyes of his fellows to the printed word, or the wandering anarchists of Latin America bridging the gulf between the European and mestizo population and the Indios with their message: "build a school and start a union''. In our own society our task is more sophisticated, but just as urgent. In "educating the society in which we live", we may very well find that since we are few and they are many, we have to educate the educators. Certainly if every teacher, social worker or psychiatrist who reads Authority and Delinquency and Sex in Society were to apply these two books' implications in daily practice, a revolutionary social change would be set in motion.
Comfort poses other questions for the anarchist, on his relationship with a non-anarchist society. Writing in FREEDOM (9/12/50) he observes that

The political dissident in a society has a positive relationship to that society, as we have in our own, but it is a resented and therefore a limited one. Perhaps the best example of a minority setting out to change a culture in which it has to live, without accepting a limited relationship of this kind, has been the Quaker movement. Social psychiatry of the type which I think is our obligation depends increasingly upon a group relationship with other individuals who do not share our convictions, but who know themselves to be accepted as individuals, and anarchism as an individualistic view of society, is today the only non-religious ideology capable of doing this.

But what of a society in which anarchist ideas have spread sufficiently to be diluted by a fringe of semi-anarchism? Years ago, Comfort posed this situation in these terms:

English history has shown a consistent tendency, which cannot be ignored, to disappoint the apocalyptic prophesies which political theorists make. It is conceivable that in any conflict English resistance may be sufficient to arrest the progress into irresponsibility, or that factors arising to postpone the collapse of barbarism may give time for libertarian and anarchist ideas to assert themselves in a field which they expressly repudiate the field of political power. Anarchists stand apart from parliamentary activity because they cannot logically take part in a process which depends upon power, and which they variously regard as self-vitiated or fraudulent or both. But extreme purism of this kind, while it may be ideologically necessary, is apt to be as roughly handled by the historical event as was the theory of inevitable socialism. There has been an almost unique tendency in English history for institutions to be absorbed and perpetuated in their own reform, and in defiance of all ideological logic, a process which enabled an unconstitutional monarchy to be absorbed in its own destruction and finally retained as nominal guardian of the very rights it had formerly attacked. Just as a revolution must look to the probability of history for its opportunity, it must inevitably look to the traditional community-pattern and pattern of social behaviour in the society which it proposes to reform. We cannot ignore this process of retaining institutions as the guardians and opponents of themselves, and while anarchists may abstain from parliamentary activity they cannot prevent the misunderstanding and partial adoption of their ideology by those who do not wholly reject power. However unprobable, therefore, a compromise between power and decentralisation may appear, it is not historically impossible, least of all in England.

Obviously, if we ever do succeed in transforming anarchism from a minority sect into a social force we are going to be faced with this kind of problem, not because of our willingness to participate in political pressure groups like the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment, or the Abortion Law Reform Association, nor because we want to use the political and governmental machine as a short cut like the office-holders of the CNT in Spain in 1936, but because any idea or system of ideas becomes a little muddied and fragmented and imperfectly comprehended the wider it is held. We have to remember that, as Malatesta put it, we are in any case only one of the forces acting in society. If we want a touchstone for our own conduct and attitudes we could not do better than to adopt the principle suggested by Comfort in his observations on The Right Thing To Do:

Human beings are social as long as they recognise one another as human beings. At the personal level we have certain common ground for our social actions. Once that relationship breaks down in any society, and particularly if we begin to treat institutions and conceptions as if they were human individuals, to individualize a group to which we belong, and transfer our responsibility for our neighbour to it, then our social sense shows increasing signs of breakdown, and we are left with a moral deficiency covering our whole public conduct, however well we may behave in our home or our street. And when I have to decide how far I can accept the directions and the laws of a centralized state as guides to my conduct, I have to remember that a centralised state is one of these stuffed substitutes for responsibility. Power in society is a product, not of responsibility crystallized, but of group aggression … The greater the concentration of authority, the greater the strain on those who accept it, the greater the likelihood that psychopaths will come to the top, and that those who do come to the top will be psychopathic.
Our moral sense only functions reliably in the type of relationship which exists between individuals: if I allow myself to swallow my conscience in deference to a graven image, however laudable, or if I allow myself to exercise a position of coercive power, my social sense will fail me exactly as it has failed every generation of rulers, whatever their standards and whatever their intentions.

Let them turn to the bottle
the Yogi and the rope,
some of them go to Uncle Joe,
some of them to the Pope —

one by one grown prosperous
of excellent intent
they set their names on the payroll
of God and Government;

one is turned evangelist,
another is turned Knight:
let them go wherever they wish —
we will stay and fight.

I may come to the light at last
as others have come there;
I think they will not put my bones
in Moscow's Red Square:

I can turn both coat and mind
as well as any man —
I think they will not put my head
towards the Vatican.

All fierce beasts grow corpulent,
mature and come to hand.
Lions lie down with sheepskin wolves —
we will see them damned.

ALEX COMFORT: "Maturity" from Haste to the Wedding
(Eyre & Spottiswoode 1962)

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Apr 28 2018 17:34


Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas

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