Disillusionment, anarchy and war

DONALD ROOUM's article is the substance of a speech he gave to a meeting on 29th March, 1967, organised by the London Federation of Anarchists to explain anarchist and near-anarchist attitudes to the Easter demonstrators. The other speakers were Andy Anderson of Solidarity, Ken Hawkes of the Syndicalist Workers' Federation, and Robert Barltrop.

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 15, 2016

"After two years of government by Labour, we have few illusions left about the nature of party politics, the empty promises, and the humbug of firm assurances."

—ALDERMASTON MARCH COMMITTEE, No time for silence (a leaflet inviting people to join the 1967 march).

TO LOSE ONE'S ILLUSIONS is at least a step nearer common sense than keeping one's illusions at all costs, like poor old CND, still begging the Labour Party to listen to its socialist conscience, search its socialist heart, and return to the path of true righteousness.

Disillusionment may start you groping your way through the smoke screen put out by the forces of law and established order. Disillusionment may make you try to disperse the crude oil constantly washed up from the political parties.
Disillusionment may start you asking yourself: What do political parties do, as distinct from what they say they do? What is the state for? How does a government earn its living?

Disillusionment can be a healthy and useful state of mind, if it doesn't last too long. But disillusionment has nothing to do with anarchism.

* * *
Anarchism, to put it simply, is a body of opinion, a doctrine, about the purpose of society. We believe the purpose of society is to increase the opportunities, satisfy the ambitions, widen the scope, of individuals.

Most of the things that people do together do in fact fulfil this purpose in one way or another. Most social relationships are between mutually free people, co-operating each for his own satisfaction.

But there is one kind of social relationship which goes against the purpose of society, which confines the choices of individuals instead of expanding them. This is the kind of relationship in which one party is boss over the other, in which somebody is dominated by some kind of threat, no matter what. This kind of relationship restricts and confines both parties, the subject in an obvious way, and the boss, less obviously, by the fact that having adopted the role of boss, he must maintain his authority.

Anarchists approve of all the positive, free, co-operative kinds of relationship. What they oppose is the boss kind of relationship, at all levels. Anarchy, the end-point at which they aim, is what Robert Barltrop calls the good society, a society in which all relationships are of the useful voluntary kind, a society of sovereign individuals in which, as Malatesta put it, the domination of man by man is impossible.

How long it win take to achieve such a society, or even whether complete anarchy can ever be achieved, is not important. Anarchists are not a product of anarchy; they are a phenomenon of now. And the function of anarchy as an end-point is to direct and clarify the anarchist struggle now, the struggle for less government and more individual choice now.

* * *
Individuals acting by and for themselves are blamed for many things by well-meaning people, and others, who cannot see beyond the context of the state. The cause of war, for instance, is often said to lie in the aggressive urges of individuals.

Now of course these urges exist, and we have seen them expressed on the Aldermaston march, in such remarks as, to quote an incident I witnessed, "Who are you telling to keep marching? You've been giving orders ever since we were on the bus. Now belt up, or I'll belt your mouth up for you", and so on. But aggression plays very little part in modern war.

The pilot who flies out from Guam, presses the button to open his bomb doors over a Vietnamese village, and flies back to Guam, does not behave aggressively at all. The bombs explode a few children and burn a few women, to say nothing of any Vietcong in the neighbourhood. A few fragmentation bombs with delaying fuses might subsequently go off in the faces of orphans looking for their mothers. But all the pilot has done is fly a plane and press a button; about as aggressive as a postman.

Sitting in a comfortable bunker, and pressing a switch to launch a rocket carrying ten times the destructive power of all the bombs in World War II, is an even less aggressive job. Ordinary people make their immense contribution to modern war, not by aggression and selfishness, but by peaceful acceptance of their relationship with the state, by unimaginative quiescence.

* * *
People disappointed that the Labour Party has not reduced arms since it came to office tend to blame the Right Honourable J. H. Wilson. At Easter 1966, for instance, CND put on a puppet show called Punch and Judas, calling Wilson a traitor and tending to suggest that had some other member of the Labour Party been Prime Minister, there would have been a measure of disarmament. This is quite unfair. Wilson has a job to do which includes maintaining the authority of the state, both in relation to its subjects and in relation to other governments. He is no more to blame for nuclear arms than Johnson, Kosigin, Mao, De Gaulle or any of the other individuals who are associated with the Bomb by cartoonists.

Nor is the Bomb the responsibility of any group in power: the Labour Party, the capitalist class, the Communist governments, the military. Weapons are an essential instrument of any government, necessary equipment in the business of governing. War is the health of the state.

Of course there are differences between governments; the British government, for instance, permits anarchist meetings, while the Chinese government does not. It is better to live in America than in North Vietnam, not only because Vietnam is being bombed and America isn't, but also because American government permits open hostility to its policies. But in the matter of War there is no discernible difference.

Some of us remember the difficulties of the anarchist movement in 1945. Others of us, respectable adults and parents of families, were not even born at the time, so there is no harm in describing the events of 1945 again. One thing that happened was that the then editors of FREEDOM were imprisoned, under a wartime Defence Regulation which had not before been applied. Another was that the horrors of Belsen, Buchenwald and Auschwitz were revealed.

We had known the concentration camps existed, but not until they were invaded did we know their incredible monstrosities. Prominent pacifists, including the editor of Peace News, resigned from pacifism after six dangerous years of wartime peace propaganda, because the horrible revelations of the camps made them think the war had been right after all. People said, "We told you all along Our governments were better than Their governments. Doubts we may have had when you pointed out the similarities, but here is a difference you cannot deny." So it went on until August.

Then on August 6th — Hiroshima — Boom! — and governments were all alike again.

* * *
The anarchists have not lost their illusions about party politics; they have never had any illusions to lose. They have always said what Wilson has been saying since he came to power; a government has to govern.

We don't doubt that a government may have a real programme for reform. There must be some ideal to fire the enthusiasm of the ordinary people who struggle to get a party in power, either by peaceful electioneering or by bloody insurrection. There must be a higher hope than mere personal glory to sustain a politician on his way to the top, through the trials and disappointments, the risks of ruin and (in many countries) death, the sacrifice of personal friendships, the endless days and nights of a whole life spent jockeying for power.

But when a party achieves power, that isn't the end of the road. It isn't a matter of now you're in power, put your ideals and aspirations into effect — whop! — and Bob's your uncle.

A government, like it or not, has to govern. It has to maintain its authority, and that means it has to maintain its means of coercion and its means of war. That is what government is about.

"Labour in power minus the Bomb" is a lovely thought. So is "Labour has let us down, let's get the Peace-loving New Radicals into power" and "The Statesmen of the World must get round a table and give a monopoly of weapons to a World Government". All lovely ideas, all manifestations of wishful thinking.

Don't we all wish there was an easy way to rid the world of war? Don't we all wish we could get rid of war for a start, then settle down to the problems of poverty and servitude and injustice? But unfortunately it's impossible.

It is absurd and ridiculous to hope that any state, whatever its ideals, will volunteer to give up a substantial part of its military might. War is the health of the state.

The only way to get rid of armaments is to get rid of governments, and political parties, and all those institutions in which one person is boss over another. The only way to work for peace, now, is to encourage people to reject authority and act for themselves, now. The only way to make war impossible is to make the domination of man by man impossible.